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« Reply #50 on: November 17, 2013, 08:23:16 AM »

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Russia Warily Eyes a U.S.-Iran Deal
November 14, 2013 | 0528 Print Text Size
Russia Warily Eyes a U.S.-Iran Deal
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Oct. 7. (SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia is concerned that a U.S.-Iranian accord could alter the regional balance of power at Moscow's expense. Even before the possible entente, the Kremlin was worried that the U.S. military withdrawal from much of the Islamic world would give the United States more freedom of action elsewhere. An agreement with Iran could undermine Moscow's influence in the Middle East and open the door to U.S.-Iranian cooperation along Russia's southern borderlands. Like many other global and regional players with a stake in the outcome of the talks, Russia will have to contemplate a world in which Iran and the United States are not at odds.

Over the past two decades, Russia has been one of Iran's primary supporters at a time when Tehran was relatively isolated in the international community and had hostile relations with many Western powers. However, Moscow and Tehran never shared any particular affinity. In fact, Russia and Iran have historically competed for influence in Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia. During the imperial periods, Persia and Russia fought several large wars from 1722 to 1828. While the Soviet Union was the first state to recognize the Islamic republic in 1979, relations between the two were cool, in part because Tehran condemned Moscow's restrictions on religion and the Soviets were already allied with Iraq.
Russia and Iran: Competing Spheres of Influence

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, relations between Tehran and Moscow began to warm while Iran's international isolation was growing. Russia committed to take over construction of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant and became a source of military hardware for Iran. Russia has also provided Iran with intelligence on a range of matters, including Israeli networks in Lebanon and U.S. and British plans to destabilize the Iranian government by, for example, taking advantage of the 2009 "Green Revolution" protests.

For much of the 2000s, U.S. attention (military and otherwise) was focused on the Islamic world, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the standoff with Iran. Moscow took advantage of Washington's preoccupation to start rolling back Western influence in Russia's borderlands. In addition, Russia could leverage its ties with Iran in negotiations with Washington on other matters, such as U.S. support for anti-Russian governments in Ukraine and Georgia. The relationship with Iran was also a way for Russia to secure its southern flank and limit Iranian-Russian competition in the region.
George Friedman and Robert D. Kaplan on U.S.-Iran Relations

Indeed, Moscow has found the standoff between Iran and the United States to be a particularly useful foreign policy tool. For example, during Moscow's negotiations with Washington over U.S. missile defense installations in Central Europe, Russia threatened to counter by selling S-300 missile defense systems to Iran. But Russia has been careful not to support Iran too much, both because a strengthened Iran would threaten Russia's southern flank and because it could provoke the United States and its allies into taking action against Moscow.
From Leverage to Liability

Russia is comfortable and familiar with partnering with a U.S. foe, though in the past such relationships have not proved durable. During the Cold War, Moscow assumed that the United States and China would remain adversaries because there were too many constraints on either side to ever reach a compromise. Following the Sino-American entente in 1971, the United States became a swing player in Sino-Soviet relations, and China became the same in Soviet-American relations. A similar phenomenon is now taking place with Iran. Russia knows that any agreement between Iran and the United States does not mean the two will become allies, and a change would not necessarily affect Russia immediately. But Russia's leaders past and present have had to be long-term strategists, and the Kremlin is weighing the ramifications of an U.S.-Iran entente well into the future.

First, should there be a true rapprochement with Iran, it could free Washington to focus more on other parts of the world. Moscow is worried that Washington would expand its attention both in Russia's periphery, where it has been attempting to boost its influence, and inside Russia itself, where the United States has actively supported anti-Kremlin groups. Russia would not be able to use Iran to counter any U.S. activities against Moscow's interests, and it has little else that is comparably effective in negotiations with Washington.

The second concern is how much the U.S.-Iranian relationship warms in the long term. Iran alone cannot threaten Russia in the region, since the Islamic republic is much smaller economically and militarily. However, U.S. backing could allow Iran to weaken Russia's regional position. Moscow cannot be certain that improved U.S.-Iranian ties would not eventually lead to increased military cooperation and support similar to Washington's relationship with Tehran in the decades before Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Moscow's Areas of Concern

A U.S.-backed Iran increases the vulnerability of Russia's southern flank. Specifically, there are three regions that Russia is concerned could once again fall away from its influence: Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Namely, Iran has the potential to be a regional energy competitor to Russia, and it can act as a land bridge for Eurasian transit through the Russian borderlands to the Persian Gulf.

Turkey is Russia's second-largest energy consumer, as well as another regional rival to Moscow's influence in its borderlands. Ankara has been looking for alternative suppliers for energy in order to reduce its dependence on Russia. Though there are minor alternatives such as Azerbaijan, Iran has the potential to seriously compete with Russia on the energy production front. Iran is already a minor energy exporter to Turkey, but with increased foreign investment and support in Iran's energy sector -- particularly from U.S. firms -- the country could increase its production on a scale that might challenge Russian energy dominance in the region. In addition, the historical geopolitical competition that saw Russia spar with Ottoman Turkey and Persian Iran -- with the countries alternately aligning with and against one another -- could resume.

The second region where Russia's sway could be undermined is the Caucasus, where Russia relatively successfully increased its influence this year. Currently, Armenia is isolated and reliant on its relationship with Russia in nearly every respect. Georgia has ushered in a government that is more cooperative with Russia, and Russian troops are still stationed in the country's breakaway territories. Azerbaijan has become more accommodating to Russian interests to avoid isolation as the rest of the region moves closer to Moscow. Russia will want to solidify its position in the Caucasus in the short term in case Iran (possibly with U.S. backing) attempts to undermine Russia's position. For example, Iran could offer Azerbaijan an alternative land route for transporting energy to Turkey and Europe or the Persian Gulf. Iran could also boost trade and energy exports to Armenia or Georgia, challenging Russian influence there.

Lastly, Moscow's grip on Central Asia -- a region already seeing increased Sino-Russian competition -- could be jeopardized. The current struggle between Moscow and Beijing has centered on the flow of energy out of Central Asia. Russia has strengthened its control over the pipelines that run between Turkmenistan and China through Kazakhstan. However, Turkmenistan's largest natural gas fields are on the border with Iran, making Iran an option for increasing Turkmen energy exports to the Persian Gulf or the West. Iran could become a transit corridor for Kazakh and Uzbek energy as well. For Central Asian states concerned about possible instability in Afghanistan, Iran could also prove to be a useful security partner on intelligence or even military cooperation in the wake of the U.S. military withdrawal.

The Kremlin understands these vulnerabilities, but it also sees that there is little it can do to interrupt the trajectory of U.S.-Iran negotiations. Instead, Russia has to be thinking of how to protect its position in a changing world. If Iran is no longer an option, finding a new tool to counter U.S. actions and shoring up the southern borderlands will be at the top of Moscow's list of priorities.

Read more: Russia Warily Eyes a U.S.-Iran Deal | Stratfor

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« Reply #51 on: February 13, 2014, 09:51:50 AM »

Russia is facing a confluence of strategic challenges in the former Soviet periphery, an area where the Kremlin has worked hard to expand Russian influence over the past decade. An emerging financial crisis in Kazakhstan and the political crisis in Ukraine are threatening Russia's economic and strategic interests. At the same time, progress in Georgia and Moldova's path toward European integration is eroding Russia's leverage in the region.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

These challenges to Russia's status as a resurgent regional power come at a delicate time because the country faces a growing host of domestic difficulties. Demographic decline, ethnic tensions and a continued dependency on an unreformed extractive industry are looming dark clouds on the horizon for the Kremlin. While not yet threatening Russia's dominance, the current crises in the former Soviet space are a challenge to Moscow's long-term strategy for the region.

Yesterday, the National Bank of Kazakhstan devalued the country's currency, the tenge, by nearly 20 percent in the aftermath of the emerging markets crisis that has been rocking developing economies over the past few weeks. The impact of the devaluation was immediate, with some currency exchanges and shops throughout Kazakhstan shutting down. More important, the devaluation has raised fears of contagion to other regional economies. A financial crisis in the Moscow-led Customs Union -- currently comprising Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus -- would hamper the expansion efforts of the bloc and perhaps even threaten the cohesion of what has been a cornerstone of Russia's strategy to secure its Central Asian hinterland.

The Kazakh move has also placed additional pressure on the already volatile economic and political situation in Ukraine, where Russia faces yet another strategic threat. Constrained in part by its need to maintain its international image during the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia has been unsuccessful in helping President Viktor Yanukovich to end the political standoff and defuse the protests that have been reinvigorated by support from the West as well as from independent domestic actors. The ongoing political stalemate in Ukraine has demonstrated that although Russia has significant levers of influence in the country, it is for now unable to unilaterally shape political outcomes.

Farther west and south, Russia faces growing pressure in maintaining its influence in another two traditional strategic focal points: Georgia and Moldova. While those countries are not as essential to Russia's security as Ukraine, they are the key for the Kremlin's strategy of consolidating its southwestern flank. European incentives have contributed to the development of Moldova and Georgia's Western-leaning trajectory in recent years.

While Georgia's current ruling Georgian Dream coalition has been more open to engagement with Russia than the previous administration of President Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia is developing a strong partnership with NATO and is pursuing a path to European integration that threatens Russia's policy. However, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has balanced Wednesday's announcement that the United States would finance his country's participation in the NATO Response Force with a public statement that he would be willing to meet with Russian leaders. Similarly, Moldova is building stronger ties to Western institutions.

Also on Wednesday, the European Parliament took a step toward visa liberalization for Moldovans, further incentivizing Moldovan leaders to strengthen cooperation with the European Union. Russia's support for breakaway regions, as well as its past economic pressures on Georgia and Moldova, have not been effective in dissuading the countries from pursuing integration with the West.

Much of Moscow's current assertive foreign policy in its periphery has been driven by concerns that its relatively strong position in the region will come under threat, especially when the United States is able to pay serious attention to the former Soviet periphery. The Putin administration is in the process of addressing the delicate question of restructuring the country's energy sector -- the lifeline of the country's economy -- while also managing the country's looming demographic crisis and growing ethnic tensions, which have the potential to spiral into violence.

The confluence of crises in its periphery may not necessarily signify a definite weakening of Russia's global and regional position -- the European Union, for all its rhetoric, remains weak and internally divided while the United States remains relatively distant -- but it adds to Moscow's growing burden.

Read more: Russia Suddenly Feeling Under Siege | Stratfor
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« Reply #52 on: March 16, 2014, 12:57:34 PM »

Very interesting piece
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« Reply #53 on: March 24, 2014, 12:17:35 PM »

Ruchir Sharma
March 23, 2014 5:55 p.m. ET

Vladimir Putin had been named the "world's most powerful person" last year by Forbes magazine well before he annexed Crimea. The land grab added to the string of geopolitical victories credited to the Russian leader—including his rescue of Syria's Bashar Assad in the chemical-weapons standoff and the safe harbor he gave to the American secrets-spiller Edward Snowden. But Mr. Putin's real power base, the economy, is crumbling.

Russia's economic growth rate has plummeted from the 7% average annual pace of the last decade to 1.3% last year. Now the brokerage arm of the country's largest state bank, Sberbank, SBER.MZ -0.23% expects zero growth in 2014.

Sensing trouble, wealthy Russians have been moving money out of the country at one of the fastest rates in two decades—$60 billion a year since 2012—and now foreign investors are pulling out too. The ruble has fallen by 22% against the U.S. dollar since 2011, and the Central Bank of the Russian Federation has been fighting to prevent a ruble collapse since the Crimean crisis began.

The situation is especially revealing because oil—the mainstay of the Russian state—has stayed relatively stable, hovering at $110 per barrel for three years. Yet the Russian economy is stagnating. This suggests deep-seated problems.

After Mr. Putin became president in 2000, he began working to end the political turmoil and inflation that gripped Russia under Boris Yeltsin. He managed the economy responsibly, getting control of the government budget and retiring debts. Rising global oil prices and easy money did the rest. Between 2000 and 2010, growth and per capita income rose to $10,000 from $1,500. Mr. Putin started this decade with an approval rating of 70%.

But he grew complacent and cocky. Former KGB allies replaced economic reformers in his inner circle. As former President George W. Bush told me in an interview, Mr. Putin in private conversations morphed from a leader who worried about Russia's debt to one who by 2008 taunted the U.S. for having too much debt. He went from saving oil profits in a rainy-day fund to spending them to cement his power.

Before 2008, Russia was putting back to work the oil fields, factories and labor force that were idled by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even so, Mr. Putin built little that was new. While Russia has a relatively high rate of investment, 26% of GDP, much of the money gets funneled into dubious projects by the state. Now the spare capacity is shrinking, and the old Soviet roads and railways are deteriorating, as any regular visitors to Russia can attest.

The inflation rate now stands at 6.3%, fourth highest among the major emerging markets, and well above the emerging world average of 3.8%. Russia has become a classic weak-investment, high-inflation economy.

Despite his growing reputation as a geostrategic mastermind, Mr. Putin's economic strategy is increasingly self-defeating, focused on extending Kremlin control. While countries like Mexico are moving to open up the state oil industry, Russia is closing it off, tossing out foreign partners. Rosneft, the large state oil company, is buying out private companies and now controls 40% of the country's oil production. It is launching its own oil field-services company, bringing in-house a service that multinational oil companies have been hiring out to efficient private contractors for years.

Russia grew richer during the last decade but did not develop in the normal sense of building up more sophisticated manufacturing industries. In a vibrant developing economy such as Korea or the Czech Republic, manufacturing accounts for at least 20% of GDP. Manufacturing in Russia accounts for just 15% of GDP, down from 18% in 2005. Small and medium-size companies of any kind, including banks, struggle to gain a foothold alongside state behemoths.

The result is that the Russian state has few new sources of income outside of oil and gas, at a time when it is taking on more dependents. Demographics are putting a squeeze on public finances, as roughly a million Russians are retiring each year, and too few young people are replacing them in a workforce of about 100 million. The situation leaves fewer taxpayers to fund pensions, after a five-year period in which the Kremlin raised pension payouts by an average of 25% a year.

This is a medium-term threat to the federal budget, which is in surplus now but shows a dangerous deficit if oil revenues—$222 billion or around 10% of GDP last year, according to IMF figures—are left out of the equation. Because of slowing growth and deteriorating terms of trade, the non-oil government deficit is now 11% of GDP. The current account is in a similar position: an apparent surplus, dependent on oil. The non-oil current-account deficit is currently running at a whopping 10% of GDP.

To keep its federal budget in balance, Russia requires an oil price of $110 barrel, so it is tiptoeing on the edge. Yet because other commodity prices have fallen, the price of oil, now $107 per barrel, is at a 30-year high compared with industrial metals. This suggests that oil, too, may be poised for a downshift—which would have a crippling impact on the Russian economy.

For now Russians are applauding their president's confident portrayal of the great power player. But that may change if the economy keeps deteriorating. Remember that by late 2011, as the scale of Russia's slowdown was becoming clear, Mr. Putin's approval ratings tanked and he faced protests in Moscow.

Mr. Putin's approval rating has bounced back following the Sochi Olympics and the invasion of Crimea. But the rest of the world should not be fooled. The world's "most powerful man" is scoring his geopolitical victories from an increasingly vulnerable economic position.

Mr. Sharma is head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley Investment Management and author of "Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles" (Norton, 2012).
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« Reply #54 on: March 28, 2014, 11:26:06 AM »

Noonan: Mr. Putin's Revealing Speech
At the Kremlin, he makes the case for an increasingly aggressive Russia.
By Peggy Noonan
March 27, 2014 7:35 p.m. ET

It is not fully remembered or appreciated—to some degree it's been forced down the memory hole—that a primary reason the American people opposed the Soviet Union and were able to sustain that opposition (and bear its costs) was that the Soviets were not only expansionist but atheistic, and aggressively so. It was part of what communism was about—God is a farce and must be removed as a force. They closed the churches, killed and imprisoned priests and nuns. Wherever communism went there was an attempt to suppress belief.

Americans, more then than now a churchgoing and believing people, knew this and recoiled. That recoil added energy, heft and moral seriousness to America's long opposition. Americans wouldn't mind if Russia merely operated under an eccentric economic system—that was their business. They wouldn't mind if it had dictators—one way or another Russia always had dictators. But that it was expansionist and atheistic—that was different. That was a threat to humanity.

One of the strategically interesting things about Vladimir Putin is that he has been careful not to set himself against religious belief but attempted to align himself with it. He has taken domestic actions that he believes reflect the assumptions of religious conservatives. He has positioned himself so that he can make a claim on a part of the Russian soul, as they used to say, that his forbears could not: He is not anti-God, he is pro-God, pro the old church of the older, great Russia.

That is only one way in which Putinism is different. The Soviets had an overarching world-ideology, Mr. Putin does not. The Soviets had an army of global reach, Mr. Putin has an army of local reach. The Soviet premiers of old, as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in an interview, operated within "a certain sense of bureaucracy, of restraints." Mr. Putin's Russia is "so concentrated economically and politically that we don't know what constraints there are on his autonomy." There is cronyism, crackdowns on the press. Mr. Putin has weakened formal institutions—and "institutions are inherently conservative" because "they provide checks and balances." Mr. Haass added that "Putin's ambitions and limits are not clear."

I think we got a deep look at Mr. Putin's attitudes and goals in his speech last week at the Kremlin, telling the world his reasons for annexing Crimea. It is a remarkable document and deserves more attention. It was a full-throated appeal to Russian nationalism, and an unapologetic expression of Russian grievance. (The translation is from the Prague Post.)

At the top, religious references. Crimea is "where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the people of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus."

Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia. Yes, in 1954 "the Communist Party head, Nikita Khrushchev" decided to transfer it to Ukraine. "What stood behind this decision of his—a desire to win the support of the Ukrainian political establishment or to atone for the mass oppressions of the 1930s in Ukraine—is for historians to figure out." But Khrushchev headed "a totalitarian state" and never asked the Crimeans for their views. Decades later, "what seemed impossible became a reality. The U.S.S.R. fell apart. . . . The big country was gone." Things moved swiftly. Crimeans and others "went to bed in one country and awoke in other ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former [Soviet] republics." Russia "was not simply robbed, it was plundered." Crimeans in 1991 felt "they were handed over like a sack of potatoes."

Russia "humbly accepted the situation." It was rocked, "incapable of protecting its interests." Russians knew they'd been treated unjustly, but they chose to "build our good-neighborly relations with independent Ukraine on a new basis." Russia was accommodating, respectful. But Ukraine was led by successive bad leaders who "milked the country, fought among themselves for power."

"I understand those who came out on Maidan with peaceful slogans against corruption," Mr. Putin said. But forces that "stood behind the latest events in Ukraine" had "a different agenda." They "resorted to terror, murder and riots." They are "Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites." "They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day." They have "foreign sponsors" and "mentors."

He declared that "there is no legitimate executive authority in Ukraine now," that government agencies are controlled by "imposters," often "controlled by radicals." In that atmosphere residents of Crimea turned to Russia for protection. Russia could not abandon them. It helped them hold a referendum.

"Western Europe and North America" now say Moscow has violated international law. "It's a good thing that they at least remember that there exists such a thing as international law—better late than never." And Russia has violated nothing: Its military "never entered Crimea" but was already there, in line with international agreements. Russia chose merely to "enhance" its forces there, within limits previously set. There was not a single armed confrontation, and no casualties. Why? Because Crimeans wanted them there. If it had been an armed intervention, he said, surely a shot would have been fired.

In the decades since the Soviet Union's fall—or, as Mr. Putin called it, since "the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet"—the world has become less stable. The U.S. is guided not by international law but by "the rule of the gun." Americans think they are exceptional and can "decide the destinies of the world," building coalitions on the basis of "if you are not with us, you are against us"—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. The "color revolutions" have produced "chaos" instead of freedom, and "the Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter."

Mr. Putin cleverly knocked down the idea of European integration. The real problem, he said, is that the West has been moving against "Eurasian integration." Russia over the years has tried to be cooperative, but the U.S. and its allies have repeatedly lied and "made decisions behind our backs." NATO expanded to the east; a missile-defense system is "moving forward." The "infamous policy of containment" continues against Russia today. "They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner. . . . But there is a limit to everything."

Russia does not want to harm Ukraine. "We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that." But Kiev had best not join NATO, and Ukrainians should "put their own house in order."

What does this remarkable speech tell us? It presents a rationale for moving further. Ukraine, for instance, is a government full of schemers controlled by others—it may require further attention. It expresses a stark sense of historical grievance and assumes it is shared by its immediate audience. It makes clear a formal animus toward the U.S. It shows Mr. Putin has grown comfortable in confrontation. His speech posits the presence of a new Russia, one that is "an independent, active participant in international affairs." It suggests a new era, one that doesn't have a name yet. But the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union were one thing, and this is something else—something rougher, darker and more aggressive.

It tells us this isn't about Crimea.

It tells us this isn't over.
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« Reply #55 on: March 28, 2014, 03:14:58 PM »

No worries. Wars never start in Poland.
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« Reply #56 on: April 29, 2014, 01:59:00 PM »
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« Reply #57 on: May 06, 2014, 08:54:49 AM »

Copying Ambassador Basora's piece into this thread by request:

This looks about right to me, "Unless and until the West takes a seriously strong stand against Putin’s undeclared war against Kiev and commits to keeping Ukraine united and independent, Putin will continue on his present path of stealth conquest."

Foreign Policy Research Institute

Putin’s “Greater Novorossiya” - The Dismemberment of Ukraine
Adrian A. Basora, Aleksandr Fisher  
About the Author:  
(more at the link, sources, footnotes)  May 2014

On April 17, Vladimir Putin introduced a dangerously expansive new concept into the Ukraine crisis. During his four-hour question and answer session on Russian TV that day he pointedly mentioned “Novorossiya” – a large swath of territory conquered by Imperial Russia during the 18th century from a declining Ottoman Empire. This historic Novorossiya covered roughly a third of what is now Ukraine (including Crimea).

Subsequent comments and actions by Putin and his surrogates have made it clear that the Kremlin’s goal is once again to establish its dominance over the lands once called Novorossiya. Furthermore, it is clear that Putin hopes to push his control well beyond this region’s historic boundaries to include other contiguous provinces with large Russian-speaking populations.

Most commentators and media are still focusing on Putin’s annexation of Crimea and on the threatened Russian takeover of the eastern Ukraine provinces (oblasts) of Donetsk and Luhansk. But the far more ominous reality, both in Moscow’ rhetoric and on the ground, is that Putin has already begun laying the groundwork for removing not only these, but several additional provincesfrom Kiev’s control and bringing them under Russian domination, either by annexation or by creating a nominally independent Federation of Novorossiya.

Unless the U.S. and its European allies take far more decisive countermeasures than they have to date, Putin’s plan[1] will continue to unfold slowly but steadily and, within a matter of months, Ukraine will either be dismembered or brought back into the Russian sphere of influence.

Putin’s convenient and expansive (though historically inaccurate) ‘rediscovery’ of Novorossiya now appears to include the following provinces in addition to Crimea: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mikolaiv and Odessa. If he can turn this vision into a reality, Moscow would dominate the entire northern littoral of the Black Sea and control a wide band of contiguous territory stretching all the way from Russia’s current western boundaries to the borders of Romania and Moldova (conveniently including the latter’s already self-declared breakaway province of Transdnistria).

If all of these provinces are either annexed by Russia or form a nominally independent federation of ‘Greater Novorossiya’, the population of Ukraine would drop from 46 million to 25 million. This would not only subtract nearly 45% of Ukraine’s 2013 population but also roughly two thirds of its GDP, given that the country’s eastern and southern provinces are far more industrialized than those of the center and west.[2]

So far, neither financial sanctions nor international condemnation of Russia’s aggressions against Ukraine have had the slightest deterrent effect against Putin’s strategy. Instead, he is now steadily undermining Kiev’s control of the country’s eastern oblasts in small slices – currently at the rate of two or three strategic centers per day – the same pace and playbook that enabled Russia to establish total control of Crimea within a matter of weeks.

Given its track record so far, the weak government in Kiev and its even weaker military and security forces are obviously powerless to put a stop to Putin’s Novorossiya strategy. Meanwhile, the western powers continue to talk but take actions that are patently having no deterrent value. Unless the U.S. and its European allies can manage a quantum leap in their sanctions and counter-measures, Putin’s strategy seems likely to continue to unfold, slowly but steadily, likely without need for any overt large-scale Russian military intervention other than menacing moves on Ukraine’s borders.

If this happens, not only will the map of Ukraine be dramatically redrawn, but the entire geopolitical balance of Europe will be decisively altered. And, needless to say, the fate of democracy in the region, which has already suffered worrisome erosion in several post-communist countries over the past few years, will be severely compromised.

And, beyond Europe, Putin will have taken a giant step towards creating his new Moscow-dominated Eurasian Union. This is a potentially massive geopolitical and economic bloc stretching through the Caucasus into post-Soviet Central Asia – with obvious negative global repercussions.

Putin’s Vision of “Greater Novorossiya”

Novorossiya (literally, New Russia) refers historically to a very large section of present-day Ukraine lying north of the Black Sea and stretching from Luhansk and Donetsk in the east to Odessa in the west. Russia, and subsequently the USSR, controlled this region from the 18th century until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. But in the Soviet period it was part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic rather than directly part of Russia.

Ominously, however, on April 17, when Putin evoked the memory of historic Novorossiya, he also exclaimed that only “God knows” why Russia surrendered this region in 1922 to Ukraine.

Just a few weeks earlier, Putin had described Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to incorporate Crimea into Ukraine in 1954 in a remarkably similar vein. The analogy seems all too obvious.

Furthermore, as if Putin’s concept of correcting historic anomalies were not sufficiently threatening, he quickly expanded his description of Novorossiya to include territories that lie well beyond its actual historical boundaries, most notably by explicitly including Kharkiv – a major city and important oblast that was never part of that historic region.

Furthermore, Putin and his hard-line Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, along with the Kremlin’s prolific propaganda machine, also regularly attempt to legitimize Russian intervention by focusing on the high number of “Russians” in Ukraine overall. Lavrov has also repeatedly claimed that Moscow has a right to protect Russian “citizens” in Ukraine – thus adding a further argument in favor of defining the new version of Novorossiya quite expansively.

Putin’s Motives and Russian Grand Strategy

Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine strategy is driven by three goals: survival, empire and legacy.

First and foremost, Putin sees the fate of Ukraine as an existential issue both for himself and for the authoritarian regime that he and his inner circle have gradually rebuilt over the past fifteen years. The Orange Revolution of 2004 was a deep shock to Putin because of the echoes it created in Russia and because Ukraine seemed to be on the brink of becoming a major source of longer-term “democratic diffusion” right on Russia’s long southwestern border. Fortunately for Putin, however, the luster of this revolution quickly wore off once its leaders gained office and failed to live up to their reformist promises. From the start there was infighting between Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko; reforms were postponed; the Ukrainian economy spiraled downward and corruption remained rampant.

By the time Yushchenko’s presidency ended in 2010, many voters had come to see Viktor Yanukovych as a preferable alternative. Yanukovich also reportedly benefited from substantial financial and “political technology” support from Moscow. For Putin, Yanukovych was a promising alternative to the western-oriented “Orange” leaders, since he seemed likely to maintain strong trade and financial ties with Russia, show proper deference towards Moscow and, above all, keep Ukraine out of NATO. But it turned out that too many Ukrainians were unwilling to follow the Putin/Yanukovich script.

When Yanukovich fled Kiev on February 21, it must have seemed to the Kremlin that a second wave of the Orange Revolution had taken control of Ukraine. Putin no doubt trembled with fury – but also with fear.

Putin’s second driving motive for going all out to reassert as much dominance as possible in Ukraine combines his goals of restoring a Russian empire and of burnishing his personal legacy. It is abundantly clear that Putin seeks to restore Russia to its former imperial glory, and in so doing to secure for himself a place in history as one of the greatest Russian leaders of all time. In a 2005 speech, Putin famously stated that “the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.”[3]

Putin’s comments on the Soviet Union, taken together with his current vision of Novorossiya, should make it crystal clear to the West that the crisis in Ukraine is not a small-scale conflict, nor simply an internal political problem between eastern and western Ukraine. Rather, a de facto war for control of Ukraine has begun – and Ukraine, in turn, is only a part (though a very important one) of Putin’s strategic plan to re-establish Russian hegemony over as much as possible of the former Soviet Union, and thus to reassert Russia’s role as a major global power.

Repeating the Crimea Playbook, Province by Province

Although his strategy in Ukraine is highly ambitious, Putin is clearly convinced that the most effective tactic is to proceed one stealthy step at a time. He will avoid overt military intervention if at all possible so as not to shock the western powers into genuinely painful countermeasures. Putin is clearly repeating the Crimea pattern in eastern Ukraine, having already established de facto control of over a dozen key locations in its most important eastern province, Donetsk. This is Ukraine’s most industrialized oblast[4], with a population of 74.9 percent Russian speakers and very strong industrial ties to Russia.

The next three oblasts most immediately threatened by Russian stealth takeovers are Luhansk with 68.6 percent Russian speakers, Zaporizhia with 48.2 percent. Kherson with 24.9 percent also belongs on the immediately endangered list, despite its lower percentage of Russian-speakers, because Russia needs to control it along with Donetsk in order to create a “land bridge” between Russia and Crimea. A further “favorable” factor from Moscow’s viewpoint is that Kherson – along with Donetsk, Zaporizhia and part of Luhansk – falls largely within the boundaries of historic Novorossiya.

Beyond these four provinces, there have already been major Russian incursions into the two contiguous provinces of Luhansk and Kharkiv (which has a 44.3 percent Russian speaking population). And, as mentioned earlier, Putin has also proclaimed publically, even though inaccurately, that Kharkiv is part of Novorossiya.

To the west of the six oblasts mentioned above are Mykolaiv and Odessa, which have 29.4 percent and 41.9 percent Russian speakers, respectively. The strategic port city of Odessa has already seen the same type anti-Kiev agitation and organization of a secessionist movement that are the hallmarks of the Crimea playbook. Christian Caryl, an American journalist and editor of Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab, has recently interviewed Odessans who are excited about the prospect of an autonomous Novorossiya state. He quotes one citizen as exclaiming, "A population of 20 million, with industry, resources. With advantages like that, who needs to become a part of Russia? By European standards that's already a good-sized country.”[5]

Language, Ethnicity and Attitudes

In claiming a Russian right to intervene in these eastern and southern provinces, it is clear that Moscow will use a maximalist definition of “Russians”. This means counting the number of Russian speakers rather than the number of ethnic Russians.[6] This is to Putin’s advantage, since the number of ethnic Russians in these provinces is much lower than the number of Russian speakers. Furthermore, not only do many Ukrainians living in the east and south acknowledge Russian as their native tongue, but an additional significant percentage speak the language fluently, which Moscow could well use as a further rationale either for the annexation of these provinces or to create an enlarged version of Novorossiya that would in fact be subservient to Moscow.

Beyond fueling ethnic and linguistic differences to justify Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, Putin is working systematically to create a permanent rift between eastern and western Ukrainians based on pre-existing differences of perspective and attitude, and by building upon manufactured confrontations and grievances.

Recent public opinion polls conducted by the Baltic Surveys/The Gallup Organization show that the linguistic and ethnic divisions between western and eastern Ukraine also correlate with the two regions’ viewpoints on a variety of issues including: Russia’s military excursion in Crimea, the EuroMaidan protests that ousted Yanukovich, and the upcoming presidential election on May 25.[7] According to the poll, over 94 percent of western Ukrainians believed Putin’s actions in Crimea constituted an invasion, while only 44 percent of eastern Ukrainians believed the same. In fact, 45 percent of eastern Ukrainians believed that the referendum in Crimea on joining Russia is a legitimate right of the residents of Crimea to express their opinion about the future of Crimea.

Sixty-six percent of citizens in western Ukraine said they viewed the Euromaidan events positively while only 7 percent of citizens in eastern Ukraine said the same. While 34 percent of citizens in western Ukraine said they would vote for Petro Poroshenko, the “chocolate oligarch”, in the upcoming presidential election, only 7 percent of eastern Ukrainians agreed, and 11 percent said they would vote for Serhiy Tihipko, a former member of Yanukovich’s Party of Regions who has taken a pro-federalization stance.

Perhaps most importantly, 59 percent of citizens in eastern Ukraine are already in favor of joining Russia’s Customs Union as opposed to 20 percent who are in favor of joining the European Union.

The total population of Putin’s ideal Greater Novorossiya (Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Dnepropetrovsk, Mykolaiv, Odessa, and Crimea), would be approximately 21 million. This would be a sizable potential addition to the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan, which would give Putin’s Russia even stronger economic leverage against the European Union.

Russian journalist Yulia Latynina views Putin’s tactics in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as a new military strategy, in which the government controls and distorts information to cast Russia and the pro-Russian separatists as the victims. She argues that this “is far more important than achieving a military victory. To come out the winner in this scenario, you don't have to shoot your enemy. All you have to do is either kill your own men — or provoke others into killing them — and then portray it as an act of aggression by the enemy with all of the attendant media spin.”[8] Due to this media spin, all of the Ukrainian government’s attempts at diffusing the situation in the eastern provinces have horribly backfired.

Implications for Moldova and Beyond

Even assuming that Putin achieves his ambitious vision of a Greater Novorossiya, there is no guarantee that Putin will stop at Odessa. In fact, the contrary seems likely. Moldova would also be directly threatened. In March, the separatist de facto government in Transdniestria asked to be incorporated into the Russian federation.[9] Putin could thus easily repeat the same tactics that were successful in Crimea and are working in eastern Ukraine, in Transdniestria. This breakaway region would become independent from Moldova and possibly join the Novorossiya federation.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the potential impact of this scenario on the weak remainder state of Moldova or, for that matter of the putative rump state of central and western Ukraine. Suffice it to say that, if Ukraine and the West do not act decisively against Russian “irredentism” in eastern Ukraine, any state in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia with a Russian speaking minority could well be at risk of either dismemberment or of de facto Russian domination as the price of avoiding it.

Can Putin be Stopped?

It is hard to envision any realistic scenario whereby the current Ukrainian government in Kiev might stop this slow and steady dismemberment of the country. Given pro-Russian separatists’ success in seizing government buildings all across eastern Ukraine with impunity, what options does the current Ukrainian government have?

If Ukraine can manage to make serious military efforts to counteract the gradual slicing off of its provinces, Moscow will blame the resultant bloodshed on Western-instigated “fascists” in Kiev and would likely intervene militarily to assure the victory of the pro-Russian separatists whom they are currently instigating and assisting with semi-covert military support. Putin has already expressed indignation towards Ukraine’s miniscule “anti-terrorist operations” in the east and has called these actions a “grave crime.”[10]

Given Ukraine’s likely ineffectiveness in dealing with Russia’s incursions into its territory, what options does the West have in dealing with Russia’s increased aggression and imperialistic ambitions?

The U.S., its NATO allies and the European Union are left with two basic options. The first is to continue the current pattern of de facto acquiescence. The West can continue its current course of public condemnation and minor punitive economic and financial sanctions that stop short of really serious pain on either side. If so, Putin will almost certainly ignore the West’s sanctions, despite their toll on the Russian economy. He will thus move steadily ahead with his plan to either separate and federalize eastern and southern Ukraine, or incorporate it into Russia.

The alternative is for the West to undertake truly deep and thus mutually painful economic sanctions that would sharply reduce Russia’s oil and gas exports and revenues, decimate foreign investment and wreak havoc with that country’s economy. This would require going very far beyond the half-hearted European support for intensified sanctions against Russia that we have seen so far, especially among European countries with strong trade ties to Russia.[11]

And, given the insulation of Putin and his ruling elite from economic pain, there would also need to be a strong show of military resolve. The U.S. would need to at least double the number of its forces stationed in Europe (currently only 66,000 vs. 400,000 during the Cold War) and NATO would have to move several thousand European, Canadian and American troops to the eastern borders of Poland and the Baltic republics, and to northeastern Romania.

As of now, the West has not committed a substantial number of troops to the defense of Eastern Europe, despite its treaty obligations to defend these NATO members. On April 23rd, the U.S. sent 150 American troops, with 450 more expected to join them, to Poland as part of a military exercise.[12] However, these 150 troops are dwarfed by Russia’s 40,000 men stationed at the Ukrainian border.[13] From Putin’s expansive perspective, these micro-exercises are derisory at a time when he has held military exercises near Ukraine involving troops in the tens of thousands.

Putin will not be deterred by anything short of a commensurate show of resolve by the Western powers.

Unless and until the West takes a seriously strong stand against Putin’s undeclared war against Kiev and commits to keeping Ukraine united and independent, Putin will continue on his present path of stealth conquest. He will implement his own vision of Novorossiya as a step towards re-establishing a “Greater Russia” – one that continues its aggressive expansionism well beyond Ukraine and in which he plays a major role on the world stage dedicated to undercutting the West and its democratic values.
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« Reply #58 on: July 21, 2014, 11:50:19 AM »
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« Reply #59 on: September 03, 2014, 09:51:37 AM »

By Robert D. Kaplan and Eugene Chausovsky

Editor's Note: With Russia, Europe and Ukraine continuing negotiations over natural gas supplies this week, Stratfor is republishing this Global Affairs column from November 2013. In addition to detailing the web of energy pipelines that connects the two landmasses, Chief Geopolitical Analyst Robert D. Kaplan and Senior Eurasia Analyst Eugene Chausovsky make the case that the relationship between Russia and Europe revolves around hydrocarbons -- and that Moscow's best option is to preserve as much of its European market share as possible.

At this juncture in history, the fate of Europe is wound up not in ideas but in geopolitics. For millennia, eruptions from Asia have determined the fate of Europe, including invasions and migrations by Russians, Turkic tribes and Byzantine Greeks. Central and Eastern Europe, with their geographical proximity to the Asian steppe and the Anatolian land bridge, have borne the brunt of these cataclysms. Today is no different, only it is far subtler. Armies are not marching; rather, hydrocarbons are flowing. For that is the modern face of Russian influence in Europe. To understand the current pressures upon Europe from the east it is necessary to draw a map of energy pipelines.
Russian-European Natural Gas Networks
Click to Enlarge

One-quarter of all energy for Europe comes from Russia, but that statistic is an average for the whole continent; thus, as one moves successively from Western Europe to Central Europe to Eastern Europe that percentage rises dramatically. Natural gas is more important than oil in this story, but let us consider oil first.

Russia is among the top oil producers worldwide and has among the largest reserves, with vast deposits in both western and eastern Siberia. Crucially, Russia is now investing in the technology necessary to preserve its position as a major energy hub for years and decades to come, though it is an open question whether current production levels can be maintained in the long term. Russia's primary gateway to Europe for oil (and natural gas) is Belarus in the north and Ukraine in the south. The Druzhba pipeline network takes Russian oil through Belarus to Poland and Germany in the north and in the south through Ukraine to Central Europe and the Balkans, as well as to Italy. Russia certainly has influence in Europe on account of its oil, and has occasionally used its oil as a means of political pressure on Belarus and Ukraine. But moving westward into Europe, negotiations over Russian oil are generally about supply and pricing, not political factors. It is really with natural gas that energy becomes a useful political tool for Russia.

Russia is, after the United States, simply the largest producer of natural gas worldwide, with trillions of cubic meters of reserves. Europe gets 25 percent of its natural gas from Russia, though, again, that figure rises dramatically in Central and Eastern Europe; generally, the closer a country is to Russia, the more dependent it is on Russian natural gas. Central Europe (with the exception of Romania, which has its own reserves) draws roughly 70 percent of the natural gas it consumes from Russia. Belarus, Bulgaria and the Baltic states depend on Russia for 90-100 percent of their natural gas needs. Russia has used this dependence to influence these states' decision-making, offering beneficial terms to states that cooperate with Moscow, while charging higher prices and occasionally cutting off supplies altogether to those that don't. This translates into real geopolitical power, even if the Warsaw Pact no longer exists.

The Yamal pipeline system brings Russian natural gas to Poland and Germany via Belarus. The Blue Stream pipeline network brings Russian natural gas to Turkey. Nord Stream, which was completed in 2011, brings Russian natural gas directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, cutting out the need for a Belarus-Poland land route. Thus, Belarus and Poland now have less leverage over Russia, even as they are mainly dependent on Russia for their own natural gas supplies by way of separate pipelines.

The next major geopolitical piece in this massive network is the proposed South Stream pipeline. South Stream would transport Russian natural gas across the Black Sea to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, with another line running to Italy via the Balkans and the Adriatic. South Stream could make Central Europe and the Balkans more dependent on Russia, even as Russia does not require Ukraine for the project. This, combined with Nord Stream, helps Russia tighten its grip on Ukraine.

But there is also Caspian Sea oil and natural gas to consider, particularly from Azerbaijan, which inhibits Russia's monopoly. Oil and natural gas pipelines built with the help of Western energy companies in the 2000s bring energy from the Azerbaijani capital of Baku through Georgia to Turkey and onwards to Europe. Furthermore, the Nabucco pipeline network has the potential to bring Caspian Sea natural gas across the Caucasus and Turkey all the way to Austria, with spur lines coming from Iraq and Iran. Obviously, this is a complex and politically fraught project that has not materialized. Winning out over Nabucco has been the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), a far less ambitious network that will bring Azerbaijani natural gas across Turkey to Greece and Italy. Because TAP avoids Central Europe and the Balkans, its selection over Nabucco constitutes a clear victory for Russia, which wants Central and Eastern Europe dependent on it and not on Azerbaijan for energy. In fact, Russian political pressure was a factor in TAP's victory over Nabucco.

The real long-term threat to Russian influence in Europe comes less from Azerbaijan than from the building of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals. These are facilities located on coastlines that convert LNG back to natural gas after it has been liquefied to enable transport across seas and oceans. With an LNG terminal, a country is less dependent on pipelines emanating from Russia. Poland and Lithuania are building such terminals on the Baltic Sea and Croatia wants to build one on the Adriatic. The Visegrad countries of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been building pipeline interconnectors, in part to integrate with -- and take advantage of -- these Baltic terminals. This LNG comes from many sources, including North Africa, the Middle East and North America. That is why Russia is deeply concerned about vast shale gas discoveries in the United States and elsewhere in Europe -- natural gas that could eventually be exported with the help of LNG terminals to Central and Eastern Europe.

Russia is also worried about the European Union's attempt to break its energy monopoly through legal means. According to new legislation known as the Third Energy Package, which is still in the process of being implemented, one energy company cannot be responsible for production, distribution and sales, because the European Union defines that as a monopoly. And such monopolistic practices actually describe Russian energy companies like Gazprom. If the European Union gets its way, Russian corporate control will be unbundled.

Therefore, we forecast that Russia's use of energy to extract political concessions will weaken over time, but will nevertheless remain formidable in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. While energy has served as an effective tool for Russia to wield political influence in Europe, Moscow is first and foremost concerned about maintaining the revenue from energy exports that has become so crucial for Russia's own budget and economic stability. In this sense, maintaining European market share (and further developing market share in Asia) takes precedence over political manipulation for Moscow.

Consequently, Russia will have to become even more subtle and sophisticated in the way that it deals with its former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact satellites.

Read more: Pipelines of Empire | Stratfor
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« Reply #60 on: September 10, 2014, 09:56:10 AM »

In the context of Putin running Russia, this seems quite plausible to me:

Russia’s Next Land Grab

WASHINGTON — UKRAINE isn’t the only place where Russia is stirring up trouble. Since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Moscow has routinely supported secessionists in bordering states, to coerce those states into accepting its dictates. Its latest such effort is unfolding in the South Caucasus.

In recent weeks, Moscow seems to have been aggravating a longstanding conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan while playing peacemaking overlord to both. In the first week of August, as many as 40 Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers were reported killed in heavy fighting near their border, just before a summit meeting convened by Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin.

The South Caucasus may seem remote, but the region borders Russia, Iran and Turkey, and commands a vital pipeline route for oil and natural gas to flow from Central Asia to Europe without passing through Russia. Western officials cannot afford to let another part of the region be digested by Moscow — as they did when Russia separated South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, just to the north, in a brief war in 2008, and when it seized Crimea from Ukraine this year.

Conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not new. From 1992 to 1994, war raged over which former Soviet republic would control the autonomous area of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region with a large Christian Armenian population of about 90,000 within the borders of largely Muslim Azerbaijan. The conflict has often been framed as “ethnic,” but Moscow has fed the antagonisms. That war ended with an Armenian military force, highly integrated with Russia’s military, in charge of the zone. The war had killed 30,000 people and made another million refugees.

Even today, Armenia controls nearly 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory, comprising most of Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding regions. Despite a cease-fire agreement since 1994, hostilities occasionally flare, and Russian troops run Armenia’s air defenses. Moscow also controls key elements of Armenia’s economy and infrastructure.

More to the point, Russia has found ways to keep the conflict alive. Three times in the 1990s, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed peace agreements, but Russia found ways to derail Armenia’s participation. (In 1999, for example, a disgruntled journalist suspected of having been aided by Moscow assassinated Armenia’s prime minister, speaker of Parliament and other government officials.)

An unresolved conflict — a “frozen conflict,” Russia calls it — gives Russian forces an excuse to enter the region and coerce both sides. Once Russian forces are in place, neither side can cooperate closely with the West without fear of retribution from Moscow.

The latest violence preceded a summit meeting on Aug. 10 in Sochi, Russia, at which Mr. Putin sought an agreement on deploying additional Russian “peacekeepers” between Armenia and Azerbaijan. On July 31, Armenians began a coordinated, surprise attack in three locations. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham H. Aliyev, and defense minister were outside their country during the attack and Mr. Aliyev had not yet agreed to attend the summit meeting. But the Armenian president, Serzh A. Sargsyan, had agreed to; it’s unlikely that his military would have initiated such a provocation without coordinating with Russia. (The meeting went on, without concrete results.)

Before the meeting, Moscow had been tightening its grip on the South Caucasus, with Armenia’s tacit support. Last fall, Armenia’s government gave up its ambitions to sign a partnership agreement with the European Union and announced that it would join Moscow’s customs union instead.

Renewed open warfare would give Russia an excuse to send in more troops, under the guise of peacekeeping. Destabilizing the South Caucasus could also derail a huge gas pipeline project, agreed to last December, that might lighten Europe’s dependence on Russian fuel.

But astonishingly, American officials reacted to the current fighting by saying they “welcome” the Russian-sponsored summit meeting. Has Washington learned nothing from Georgia and Ukraine? To prevent escalation of the Caucasus conflict, and deny Mr. Putin the pretext for a new land grab, President Obama should invite the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia to Washington and show that America has not abandoned the South Caucasus. This would encourage the leaders to resist Russia’s pressure. The United Nations General Assembly session, which opens next week, seems like an excellent moment for such a demonstration of support.

Washington should put the blame on Russia and resist any so-called conflict resolution that leads to deployment of additional Russian troops in the region.

Finally, the West needs a strategy to prevent Moscow from grabbing another bordering region. Nagorno-Karabakh, however remote, is the next front in Russia’s efforts to rebuild its lost empire. Letting the South Caucasus lose its sovereignty to Russia would strike a deadly blow to America’s already diminished ability to seek and maintain alliances in the former Soviet Union and beyond.
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« Reply #61 on: September 10, 2014, 10:39:06 AM »

Excellent find.

Please post here as well:
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« Reply #62 on: December 11, 2014, 07:13:53 PM »

 Russia Refocuses on the Middle East
Geopolitical Diary
December 11, 2014 | 02:49 GMT Text Size Print

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has maintained an active travel schedule in the Middle East recently. Bogdanov, a career Russian diplomat with decades of experience in the Middle East, coordinates closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and is considered a serious behind-the-scenes player in terms of Russia's diplomatic efforts in the region. (Putin named him as his special envoy to the Middle East on Nov. 1.) This is why we took note of Wednesday's announcement by the Russians that they are ready to host a meeting between the United States and Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government in Moscow if both sides request it, although serious impediments to such a scenario remain.

The announcement comes on the heels of high-level Russian moves in Turkey and Iran. Moscow's announced plans to abandon the South Stream natural gas project in favor of a pipeline running directly though Turkey, along with Russia's involvement in the P-5+1 nuclear talks with Tehran in recent weeks, reflect a resurgence of Russian diplomatic activity in the Middle East.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman Explains.

Russia's complicated relationship with Iran limits the role Moscow can play in Iranian diplomatic efforts — a reality reinforced by Tehran's announcement on Wednesday that it would not be entering an oil bartering deal with Moscow, despite a recent flurry of Russian media reports claiming that such a deal is imminent.

Moscow understands the limits of reaching a lasting strategic accord with Iran, but Russia's primary goals in its Middle East strategy are not necessarily better bilateral relations with individual states such as Iran, Egypt or Syria. Rather, Russian activities in the Middle East are meant to augment its global strategies, especially with regard to directing U.S. attention away from areas that the Kremlin considers threatened by Washington's actions, such as Ukraine. Russia has been successful in its Middle East activities, most notably in negotiating a chemical weapons destruction plan that deterred direct U.S. military strikes against Syria in 2013.

Russia also aims to limit U.S. opportunities for building more stable relationships in the Middle East. Moscow has been successful in this regard, as illustrated most recently by Turkey and Russia's plans to transit natural gas to Europe, circumventing Ukraine, and in a more limited sense with Moscow's relationship with Tehran. A meeting between the United States and al Assad also risks alienating the United States from regional allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which strongly oppose any policy that could result in the al Assad government staying in place as part of a negotiated settlement.

Over the past month traveling across the Middle East, Bogdanov has hosted representatives from Syria in Moscow and met with the Qataris in Bahrain. Amid mounting domestic economic difficulties and ongoing tensions with the West over Ukraine, Moscow is reverting to what has become a familiar and successful tactic in recent years.

Russia's intentions in the Middle East are hardly altruistic. If Russia wants to mediate for the motley crew of combatants and foreign nations playing supporting roles in the Syrian conflict, the primary goal is unlikely to be peace. However, by refusing to be sidelined in global discussions and by continuing to draw U.S. attention and effort into the traditional quagmire of Middle Eastern conflict, Russia hopes to better secure its own interests in its strategic periphery. Moscow has faced a strong challenge to its position in Ukraine, and its energy-dependent economy will struggle to adjust to the current downtown in global oil prices. Russia is far from down for the count, however, and recent diplomatic moves in the Middle East show that Moscow is still a formidable geopolitical player.

Read more: Russia Refocuses on the Middle East | Stratfor
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« Reply #63 on: January 03, 2015, 10:00:27 AM »
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« Reply #64 on: January 14, 2015, 11:17:22 AM »

Is he crazy or on to something?
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« Reply #65 on: January 14, 2015, 12:38:13 PM »

Second post-- but please remember to comment on the first one:

 How Foreigners Can Help the Russian Military
January 14, 2015 | 10:00 GMT Print Text Size
Russian soldiers march in Moscow's Red Square on May 9, 2014, during a Victory Day parade. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree Jan. 3 that will allow foreign nationals between the ages of 18 and 30 to serve in the military. The decree came with several stipulations: Foreigners must speak Russian, have no criminal record and sign contracts obligating them to serve for at least five years. This new initiative seeks to solve Moscow's difficulties in reaching its goal of maintaining a million-strong military and transitioning from a conscript-dominated system to one staffed by professional soldiers. Adding foreign troops to the mix will also help Russia tie itself more closely to the former Soviet periphery while also allowing it to engage in conflicts with less impact on the Russian public. Ultimately, however, Russia's military problems are tied to the nation's demographic challenge, which is far too great to be solved by a simple change in policy. But while including foreign servicemen in its military cannot fully resolve the major demographic constraints the Russian military is facing, the decree does provide certain benefits to Moscow.

This initiative is not a complete departure from Russian military tradition. The armed forces have a long history of including fighters who are not ethnic Russians, providing it with the expertise necessary to incorporate and deploy foreign troops. During World War II, for example, the Soviet Union used Polish fighters. In recent history, ethnic minorities from Russia's borderlands and citizens of the former Soviet states have fought for the country. Moscow has relied on the 40,000 members of the Chechen Brigades to carry out military and policing operations in key hotspots, particularly in the Caucasus region. Russia has even established specialized Chechen units directly subordinate to the Main Intelligence Directorate, including the Vostok and Zapad units, which saw active service in the 2008 war with Georgia. Russia's new initiative, however, will expand regulations to include troops from outside Russia proper. It will also be the first time the military has institutionalized such a policy since the establishment of the Russian Federation.

Russia's military primarily relies on a nationwide draft, but Moscow has found maintaining adequate troop numbers difficult using this system. During the 1990s, Russia's birthrate dropped precipitously, and now the nation's demographics are entering a period of decline in which the number of military-age men will continue to shrink. This has already begun to have an impact. In the latest autumn draft, the government was only able to call up 154,000 men — far short of the 300,000 needed to sustain the level of 1 million service members Moscow has set. Broadening the pool of recruits will help alleviate this problem, but cannot fully resolve it.

Moscow's decision to allow foreigners to join the Russian armed forces goes beyond the drop in conscription numbers. In recent years, Russia has made considerable efforts to transition its force away from one that is reliant on conscripts toward a force with a majority of contracted soldiers. Russian conscripts only serve a one-year term — barely enough time to train to an effective level — before their service ends. Contracted soldiers, by contrast, serve multiple years as stipulated by their agreement and are, in effect, professional soldiers. Russia can rely on these more experienced soldiers to operate complex military systems such as nuclear missile launch units and to man elite paratrooper regiments.

Moscow has already stepped up efforts to recruit contracted soldiers from the Russian population, but the stigma associated with service hazing, competition from the civilian job market and underlying health problems that disqualify a large number of potential recruits have limited this initiative's success. By requiring a five-year commitment, Putin's decree allowing foreign servicemen to enter the military aims to further improve the ratio of contracted soldiers to conscripts.

But the push to recruit foreign nationals transcends demographic considerations and the desire to improve the military's ratio of professional soldiers to volunteers. Their status as foreigners — and thus not members of the Russian public as a whole — makes them useful to Moscow. For any nation, dispatching forces to achieve foreign policy objectives carries the risk of creating a public outcry. Because of this, France and Spain established their own foreign legions — France in 1831 and Spain in 1920. For Russia specifically, decreasing the number of Russian nationals in its forces will help to ease public pressure when Moscow deploys forces for dangerous missions along its periphery, helping it avoid backlash in cases of high casualty numbers. Russian action in Ukraine has already come up against this hurdle. Moscow has had to deal with embarrassing complaints from its citizens over the loss of loved ones in Ukraine — even as it continues to deny any significant involvement in the conflict.

Including foreigners in its military will also have the added benefit of forwarding Russia's continued attempts to foster links with neighboring states. Because of their proximity and the requirement that the new soldiers speak Russian, foreign-born contract soldiers will likely come disproportionately from the former Soviet periphery. These states all have considerable ethnic Russian populations, and the Russian language is widely spoken, even among the general population. Russia will see Belarusians, Armenians and Kyrgyz as prime candidates because of Russia's continued military presence and close ties to the countries. The breakaway territories that Moscow recognizes as independent — including Transdniestria and Abkhazia — will also be optimal sources of foreign nationals. Eventually, this could even extend to the large and diverse set of foreigners already present and fighting in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region.

By opening up recruitment to foreign nationals, the Russian Armed Forces can provide considerable benefits to Russia as it seeks to continue improving its military. The total number of foreign servicemen that meet Russia's specific requirements, however, is limited. Foreigners will neither dominate nor significantly alter the underlying force structure of the Russian military — they will remain a controllable minority. The decree, however, does highlight continued attempts by the Russian military to enhance its power through conventional and unconventional means despite major funding and demographic constraints.

Read more: How Foreigners Can Help the Russian Military | Stratfor
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« Reply #66 on: January 14, 2015, 01:38:39 PM »

Third post.  Hope people are giving this some attention.
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« Reply #67 on: January 14, 2015, 10:24:21 PM »

Not on my radar until now.
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« Reply #68 on: January 15, 2015, 07:44:19 PM » 
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« Reply #69 on: January 15, 2015, 07:46:36 PM »

Second post

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« Reply #70 on: January 20, 2015, 11:28:18 AM »

Russia-India nuke plants
« Last Edit: January 20, 2015, 11:37:48 AM by Crafty_Dog » Logged
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« Reply #71 on: January 25, 2015, 09:56:14 PM »

Russia’s Emerging Holy War

At the beginning of this week, President Barack Obama explained that Russia, hit hard by Western sanctions, is losing in its confrontation with the West and NATO caused by Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. In his State of the Union address, Obama displayed similar swag and bluster against both the Kremlin and Congressional Republicans, seemingly without regard for any recent events. As the President explained:

We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.

“Every one of these sentences is, to put it mildly, a stretch,” explained one seasoned Kremlin-watcher, and the news this week from Ukraine has been grim, contra Obama’s hopeful pose. While Russia’s economy remains seriously hurt from sanctions and, even more, the sharp drop in oil prices, the notion that this is taming Putin’s baser urges is not only untrue, it’s more likely the opposite of the truth, as I cautioned a month ago.

Facts have increasingly been getting in the way of this White House’s messaging, on many fronts, so just as Obama now calls for political bipartisanship, after six years of doing the opposite, all the while ignoring the massive blowout of his own party by the Republicans in Congress that just happened again, for the second time in his presidency, Obama likewise seems to think that a bit of swag, plus a public taunt, aimed at Putin when the former KGB man is down on his luck will have the desired geopolitical effect. This White House does not seem to dwell on the fact that, while the domestic enemy may be politically obstructionist, the foreign enemy has all sorts of Special War unpleasantness in his arsenal, not to mention thousands of nuclear weapons.

If nothing else, the current crisis has demonstrated to Russians, with Kremlin prodding, that the United States remains their Main Enemy that it was for decades, now led by the arrogant and weak Obama, who is hated by the Russian public. The Chekists who run Putin’s Russia, who protested for years that America wanted to defeat Russia’s post-Cold War resurgence, that the U.S. will stop at nothing to bring Russia to heel while humiliating it, have been proved right, at least as far as most Russians are concerned.

To the shock and dismay of hopeful Westerners, including nearly all NATO leaders, the hard hit of sanctions has caused Russians to hate the West, not Putin. Most Russians view their war in Ukraine as a legitimate defense of Russians and Russian interests, certainly nothing like America’s aggressive wars of choice halfway around the world, and they are backing the Kremlin now.

Word of this defiance has even crept into The New York Times, which otherwise is a pitch-perfect expression of the WEIRD worldview. As Russian troops are advancing deeper into Ukraine, fresh from victory at Donetsk, NYT asked what on earth is going on here, why would Russians want more war now that the cost of it all to their economy is becoming obvious? The explanation was proffered by a Moscow economist: “The influence of economists as a whole has completely vanished,” he opined about the Kremlin: “The country is on a holy mission. It’s at war with the United States, so why would you bother about the small battleground, the economy?”

Once again, Westerners have imagined Putin is just like one of their leaders — cautious, timid even, obsessed with Wall Street and finely tuned to what big donors care about — when our Chekist-in-Charge is nothing of the sort. With perfect timing, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, addressed the Duma this week, for the very first time, delivering a speech long on social conservatism, including a plea to ban abortions to help Russian demographics, as well as a caution to ignore the West’s dangerous “pseudo-values.” Putin’s Russia is inching ever closer to Byzantine-style symphonia, and in the war against America and the West that is coming — and, according to many Russians, is already here — the Kremlin wants its people to be spiritually fortified for a long fight.

Bankers and oligarchs, who get much attention from the Western media, have become peripheral figures in Moscow. Months before the Ukraine crisis broke with Russia’s seizure of Crimea, Putin privately warned wealthy men whom he deemed friends and supporters to start getting their money out of the West, as tough times were coming. In the Kremlin’s view, oligarchs who failed to do this, and are now facing ruin, have nobody to blame but themselves. Any billionaires who criticize Putin too freely will meet with prison or worse.

It’s increasingly clear that the security sector, what Russians term the special services, are running the show. They are Putin’s natural powerbase, his “comfort zone” in Western parlance, plus they are the guarantor of his maintaining power as the economic crisis worsens. Current reports indicate that Putin’s inner circle now is made up entirely of siloviki, to use the Russian term, men from the special services:  National Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev, Federal Security Service (FSB) head Aleksandr Bortnikov, Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) head Mikhail Fradkov, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu.

Patrushev headed the FSB from 1999, the beginning of Putin’s presidency, to 2008, and was a previously a career KGB officer, serving in Leningrad counterintelligence just like Putin: and just like Putin, he is a Chekist to his core. Current FSB director Bortnikov, who took over from Patrushev in 2008, is another career Chekist who joined the KGB after college and, yet again, comes out of the Leningrad office. Fradkov is not officially a Chekist by background, having spent the early years of his Kremlin career in foreign trade matters, but he was “close” to the KGB during that time, and he has headed the SVR, the successor to the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate, since 2007; it says something about Putin’s confidence in him that Fradkov survived the 2010 debacle of the exposure of the SVR’s Illegals network in the United States, which was nearly as demoralizing to the SVR as the Snowden Operation has been for U.S. intelligence. The last, Shoygu, who has headed the powerful defense ministry since 2012, is not a military man by background, yet has longstanding ties to military intelligence (GRU).

As Russia’s economic crisis has mounted, Putin has unsurprisingly turned to fellow Chekists, some of them very like himself by background. They share a worldview which is conspiratorial and deeply anti-Western; they view America as their Main Enemy and now believe Obama is on a mission to destroy Russia. That they will not allow, and they will stop at nothing to halt what prominent Orthodox clerics recently have termed the “American project” that wants to destroy Holy Russia. This volatile combination of Chekist conspiracy-thinking and Orthodox Third Rome mysticism, plus Russian xenophobia and a genuine economic crisis, means that 2015 promises to be a dangerous year for the world. The Kremlin now believes they are at war with the United States, an Orthodox Holy War in the eyes of many Russians, and that struggle is defensive and legitimate. It would be good if Obama and his staff paid attention. This is about much more than Ukraine.
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« Reply #72 on: February 06, 2015, 10:43:39 AM »
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« Reply #73 on: April 02, 2015, 07:35:57 AM »
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« Reply #74 on: August 12, 2015, 12:02:04 PM »

Stratfor Video
 Conversation: Russia's Perfect Economic Storm — Stratfor Senior Managing Editor Ben Sheen and Senior Eurasia Analyst Lauren Goodrich discuss the economic factors that are putting pressure on the Kremlin's control over Russia.
"It seems that the media has really been focusing on the really big picture of the recession inside of Russia. However, there is a growing, even more dangerous issue economically, in that the Russian regions are really getting further and further into crisis. The Russian regions were already in crisis even before 2014. Their debts since 2010 keep on doubling and doubling and doubling, and now we've had close to 100 to 150 percent rise in debts within the Russian regions, just over the past few years. That's astonishing when you think of Russia having 83 regions. Now, the Russian economic minister has suggested that possibly 60 of those 83 regions are in crisis mode at this time, and there's even speculation that 20 of them are already defaulting on their debt, even though the government itself doesn’t want to make it really public yet.
Video: Conversation: Russia's Perfect Economic Storm

Remember that Russia is a country that is not a united country. It is a very regionalized, localized country, in which it's almost like 83 different countries that are all put together. That's why it is a true federation. And having dissent within the regions has always been one of the root causes that collapses Russia eventually. And Putin of everyone knows this. So he's going to ensure that those specific regions that are the most resistant to rule from Moscow are going to be taken care of first. And then those regions that are a little bit more Russified are the ones that he's going to allow to fester within their economic crisis.
Putin is trying to prove a point. He's trying to prove a point to the West that he can isolate Russia from the West, from Western foods, and keep Russia Russia. The problem is that in doing this, he is actually hurting the Russian people. Putin came into power with a social contract with the Russian people, on "you will always receive your paychecks; I will keep the economy growing; I will quadruple — pretty much — standard of living; you will have Western-style foods and goods inside of Russia." And now we're seeing Putin having to step back from that social contract that has kept his popularity so high for the past 15 years, just in order to counter what is happening with the standoff with the West. So Putin is pretty much struggling between two crises: Does he want to counter the West, or does he want to ensure that his social contract with the Russian people remains intact?"
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« Reply #75 on: October 09, 2015, 10:09:38 AM »

In these grim times, I am afforded light relief by CNN—the only news channel offered by the treadmill of my Tokyo apartment house—as its presenters and pundits gravely debate the motives behind Putin’s investment in Syria. His own version is that he is fighting “extremism,” which oddly enough is the same dark threat that President Barack Obama also recognizes while rigorously avoiding the qualifiers Islamic, Islamist, or Muslim—although he will refer to Isol, prompting the thought that it is impossible to defeat an enemy one is afraid to name. There is no Isol or even Isis anymore, because the good old ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi’l-ʿIraq wa-sh-Sham—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—has long since become the Islamic State of everywhere from Nigeria to Afghanistan, no doubt also including the British Isles and Michigan. Ignoring earnest declarations of its un-Islamic character solemnly issued by non-Muslim presidents, premiers, and prelates, volunteers who recognize the authenticity of the Islamic State keep pouring into its still-expanding borders, easily offsetting the casualties inflicted by the very expensive U.S. bombing campaign, now joined by the British, French, … and Putin, whose air force already claims dozens of air strikes against the common foe.

Putin’s enthusiasm for the great cause might be expected to earn him some gratitude. Instead, the Russian leader is criticized by wise CNN pundits—and by the Obama Administration—for seeking to defend his client Assad by bombing his other enemies as well, i.e., the dozens of quarreling Islamist bands that grandly call themselves Jaysh al-Fatah, “the army of conquest,” the several quarreling factions of Syrian Army defectors that call themselves al-Jaysh as-Suri al-Ḥurr, “the free Syrian army,” the unabashedly extremist al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat an-Nuṣrah, which is much stronger than both, and, above all, the brave “pro-democracy” warriors armed and trained by the United States itself, under a $500 million program.

In reality Putin’s young bombing campaign has hit very few Islamic State targets. Yes, aircraft have flown and bombs have been dropped, but the Russians have no ground intelligence in place to identify targets any more than the United States has, except in those rare occasions when black-flagged vehicles are actually seen driving around in broad daylight—which is why the Islamic State has expanded ever since the U.S. bombing started. But Putin must certainly be innocent of the accusation that his air force has bombed the U.S.-trained “pro-democracy” freedom fighters, because the trainers themselves have admitted that the first lot on which one-tenth of the budget has been spent, i.e., $50 million, are exactly five in number, the rest having deserted after receiving their big family-support signing bonus and first paycheck, or after they were first issued with weapons (which they sold), or after first entering Syria in groups, when they promptly joined the anti-American Jabhat an-Nuṣrah, whose Sunni Islam they understand, unlike talk of democracy. That guarantees Putin’s innocence: All five extant U.S.-made freedom fighters are reportedly alive and well, though one may have defected since the last count. (It would really be much cheaper to hire Salvadoran contract gunmen and fit them out in Arab head-dresses.)

On the other hand Putin is certainly guilty of defending Assad’s regime and indeed of wanting to preserve it in the capital-city area of Damascus if possible, or at least in the natural redoubt of the coastal strip from Lebanon to Turkey where Assad’s fellow Alawites outnumber the Sunni Muslims ranged against him, and which also has room for Syria’s Christians, Ismaili, Twelver Shia, and urban Druze who suffer persecution and sometimes outright massacre wherever Sunni insurgents of any kind advance (the only difference is that the Islamic State documents its killings in vivid color), and that happens to include the city of Tartus, home of a Russian ex-Soviet naval base since 1971, which happens to be the one and only overseas base of the Russian Federation anywhere in the world, and which greatly adds to the naval value of Putin’s conquest of Crimea, where his Sevastopol naval base is on the wrong side of the Dardanelles. With refueling and light repairs in Tartus, the Russian navy can operate continuously in the Mediterranean, and prevail in the eastern Mediterranean, especially now that the historic U.S. Sixth Fleet is down to a ship or two, the rest of the shrinking U.S. Navy having long since gone to the Indian Ocean or the Pacific.

So, yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, the aforementioned accused, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is guilty of a very great crime: He defends his allies and attacks his enemies—conduct particularly reprehensible in the eyes of the Obama Administration, which does the exact opposite. Obama’s America dislikes Japan’s staunchly pro-American Prime Minister Abe (deemed “insufficiently apologetic”), it spurns the calls for action of Britain’s Cameron and Hollande of France, and has missed no opportunity to denigrate Benjamin Netanyahu, even as it eagerly embraces the bleak dictators of Cuba and of course Hassan Fereydoun a.k.a. Rouhani, president of the “death to America” Islamic republic of Iran and de facto chief nuclear negotiator—for the second time. The first time, from Oct. 6, 2003 to Aug. 15, 2005, when Rouhani was the official negotiator, under the equally mellifluous President Mohammad Khatami, he boasted that he had used the talks “to buy time to advance Iran’s nuclear program”—but that is not something that would dissuade an American administration that is intensely suspicious, but only of its allies.
Side with the Americans and you will be promptly abandoned if troublemakers force the police to shoot. Side with Putin’s Russia and you will be supported no matter what.

Putin is a very peculiar character who believes that the president of a country should give a very high priority to the enhancement of its own power, which is admittedly an old-fashioned pursuit as compared to the hundreds of initiatives that the Obama Administration has deemed more important than the upkeep of American power and credibility on the global scene. The administration has a growing list of disastrous failures to show for its preoccuptions, from the Ukraine to Afghanistan. In each case, there has been neither an effective engagement nor a clean disengagement but only vapid assurances, agonizing indecision, gross policy errors by visibly incompetent officials (who keep embarrassing Obama without being re-assigned to parking duties) and really appalling execution—as in the Iran negotiation, which ended with Secretary of State John Kerry camped in Geneva, and very visibly unwilling to leave without his agreement, for which he made the most embarrassing last-minute concessions (including the amazing 24-day advance warning of inspections), acting no differently than first-time bazaar customers who buy ancient, historic, unique, imperial Persian palace carpet for a mere (“only for you”) 10,000, a nice mark-up over the 49.99 charged by its Pakistani manufacturer. When it comes to execution, even that shameful silliness is exceeded by the botched Syria operation of that Obama favorite, CIA director John O. Brennan, who thinks of himself as a great Middle East expert, yet cannot read Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, or Turkish.

Putin is different. He has two aims in Syria, both utterly realistic: Keep his Tartus base that makes Russia a Mediterranean Great Power (look at the competition) at very low cost, and demonstrate that it really pays to serve Russia. The Americans abruptly dropped Hosni Mubarak like a rotten apple after decades of obedient service because his police shot at some demonstrators: Russia still supports Assad vigorously no matter what. The message resonates with potentates across the region, none of whom happens to be democratically elected (with the exception of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is doing his best to undo his country’s democracy). Side with the Americans and you will be promptly abandoned if troublemakers force the police to shoot. Side with Putin’s Russia and you will be supported no matter what. So it little matters what happens to Assad in the end: Putin has already won the credibility competition, which earns him and Russia real gains.


Putin is also different in his understanding of the business of diplomacy. The Obama version is that the practicalities of any actual transaction are much less important than their decoration with fashionably modish principles and procedures, including genuflections to the forever useless United Nations. Hence none can expect to exchange X for Y in dealing with the Obama White House and Administration—it all has to go through its indecision machine that delays everything inordinately, at the very least.

By contrast, when Netanyahu heard that Putin was sending fighter-bombers to Syria, over which Israeli fight-bombers must operate from time to time to destroy trucks carrying Iran-supplied missiles to Hezbollah, thus opening the very real possibility of deadly aerial encounters, there were no lengthy pre-negotiation palavers to arrange for preparatory meetings that might one day lead to a meeting of the principals, in the manner of the Obama Administration. Instead Netanyahu asked for a quick meeting, Putin responded by inviting him to come to Moscow right away, where the two right away agreed that the Russians would telephone Cohen before taking off to bomb—that being Yossi Cohen, Bibi’s National Security Advisor and ex Deputy Director of the Mossad and its likely future director, yet known as “the model” as in fashion, not as “Cohen the spy” as per the very old joke (he might be the other Cohen, David S. is now Deputy Director of CIA). Israeli flights would be announced to Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s national security adviser, and former head of the FSB foreign intelligence service—Cohen’s colleague as well as counterpart. As for verification, there will be no 24-day inspection delays for the Israelis because even if none of their airborne command centers are aloft, their mountaintop radar can see aircraft from the moment they take off from the Russian base—the operating rule being that when one side does any bombing, the other side must stay on the ground.

Important in itself, the Putin-Netanyahu agreement also illustrates a contemporary reality that continues to elude the Obama Administration. Its policies toward Israel are by no means malevolent—there may be an intense personal hostility on the part of some officials but they cannot act on it. On the other hand, from the president down, the Obama Administration obviously retains a particular vision of Israel that is not at all hostile, indeed it is even protective, but which is also thoroughly obsolete: They still imagine a small country surrounded by enemies in its own region, isolated globally as well, and utterly dependent on the United States.

That was all true enough in the 1970s, but hardly depicts current reality—except in the hollow ceremonials at the United Nations. Today’s Israel has genuine Arab allies on two of its four borders, with which it cooperates every day, and other Arab allies beyond them ready to act jointly against Iran, and not only secretly. Israel has broad relations with both China and Russia (with which it is connected by ten non-stop flights a day), and has very active strategic relations with the major European countries that would have been unimaginable in the 1970s. In other words, in treating Netanyahu so contemptuously the Obama Administration was also revealing its misreading of the balance of power, an unsurprising error in a group that seems bereft of strategic understanding in many other directions as well.

Putin by contrast may understand nothing else but he does understand strategy, and the balance of power. That is why he played no games with Netanyahu, and simply conceded Israel’s right to bomb in Syria—no small thing in the circumstances, given that Russian personnel and aircraft will be on the ground when that happens, within a total geography that is very small indeed at 500 miles per hour.

Many Americans view Putin simply as a thug but public opinion polls show that Russians disagree. His popularity is bound to decline as Putin’s own counter-sanctions are needlessly intensifying the shortages caused by Western sanctions, and by the fall in the value of the ruble, yet a majority of Russians are likely to remains responsive to his fundamental message: “You are Russian. Sanctions or no sanctions, you will never eat as well as the Italians nor dress as elegantly as the French, and you will never be rich as the Americans—but you Russians are an imperial people, masters of the largest state in the world, equally ready to rule benevolently two dozen obedient nationalities and to punish the lawless. I, Putin, for my part, will not give away parts of your empire as my feckless predecessors Gorbachev and Yeltsin did, and I will strive to recover what I can, not just Crimea but as much of the Ukraine as possible, with more gains to come elsewhere.”

Such primitive notions are no doubt incomprehensible to Obama and his officials, as well as to their intellectual milieu, for which empire can only be an embarrassment, power cannot be purposeful, peace is obtained by good will and not by assured security, war is purposeless destruction (and all warriors are merely future PTSD cases), and diplomacy should be a multilateral pursuit, having to do with Global Warming if at all possible. These are all useful stances for rank-and-file Obama officials as they prepare their future with Bill and Melinda, Bill and Chelsea, and the rest of the PC foundation universe with its light lifting and ceaseless conferencing travel to yammy destinations, but to conduct the foreign policy of the United States they are hopelessly off-target. Putin and Netanyahu, by contrast, are determined to hit their targets hard.


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« Reply #76 on: October 28, 2015, 01:58:53 AM »
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« Reply #77 on: November 29, 2015, 08:03:39 AM »

 By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
Nov. 24, 2015 6:00 p.m. ET

Vladimir Putin is not the master strategist some make him out to be. He’s a gambler and maneuverer whose bold moves are not testaments to vision or cojones but to the unhealthiness of his domestic political situation.

His choice of words in reaction to Turkey’s downing over Syria of a Russian jet—he called it “a stab in the back”—was redolent of another leader who spoke of stabs in the back, and not one whose regime broke any records for longevity.

Mr. Putin presumably has two immediate goals: Remove sanctions so Russian companies can start rolling over their debts again, without which many may collapse. He also needs higher oil prices to stave off the eventual insolvency of his state.

The Putin regime, let’s recall, arose to loot the benefits of Russian integration in the world economy, not as a reaction against it, despite claims by some today that Russia is motivated by eternal geopolitical insecurities prompted by (largely mythical) Western expansionism.

He needs conflict with the West to justify his people’s privation and his failure to allow the diversification and modernization of the Russian economy under a rule of law. He also needs the West’s complicity, which he has mostly gotten. It’s hard to fathom, for instance, why his cheating athletes were allowed at the London Olympics, much less why he was allowed to host the Sochi Olympics. Both would have been unthinkable if the West had publicly recognized his regime’s likely complicity in nuclear terrorism on British soil in the polonium murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko.

His salvation, though he would not phrase it this way, is to become the West’s client regime, while masquerading as a superpower-equal.

Truth be told, there are Westerners who would like to accommodate him, but Western politics is not likely to allow it, especially the politics of a post-Obama America.

A related problem likely guarantees failure in any case: There is quite probably nothing that U.S. or Western appeasement can do to save the Putin regime from itself in the long run.

Which brings us to the shootdown. Whatever he woke up thinking on Tuesday morning, Mr. Putin now appears to be contemplating playing the victim of NATO aggression (Turkey is a NATO member). Where he goes from here is hard to forecast. Pathological gamblers who get themselves in holes tend to double down. KGB colleagues recall that as a youthful agent Mr. Putin was sidelined to an East German backwater because his recklessness and propensity for miscalculation were unwelcome at a time when the Soviet Union was weak and the KGB had become risk averse.

Otto Dietrich, Hitler’s press aide, noted the Fuhrer’s own devolution from “domestic reformer” into a “foreign-policy desperado and gambler in international politics,” who “began to hate objections to his views and doubts on their infallibility. . . . He wanted to speak, but not to listen.”

It’s not exactly reassuring that Mr. Putin’s reaction to Turkey’s defense of its airspace seems to have emerged almost instantly, unlike the shilly-shallying that proceeded his reaction to the blowup of a Russian airliner over Sinai (perhaps partly because Mr. Putin was trying to figure out if his own security apparatus was involved).

If he’s paying attention, Mr. Putin should by now have learned his leverage is much less than he imagines. At least while Angela Merkel is around, he has only managed to turn his important German friend into a quasi-enemy. He has turned a formidable Turkish friend into an actual enemy.

On Friday the Turkish government called in the Russian ambassador for a tongue lashing over Russia’s bombing of ethnic Turks in northern Syria. Tuesday’s downing was clearly not an accident. The Turkish government doesn’t seem to find Mr. Putin quite as impressive as some of his American admirers do.

Then again, only the misguided ever did. By March of this year, Russian economist Sergei Guriev estimated that Russia had already spent half its 2015 military budget. Russia’s spending plan was premised on $100 oil. This year’s budget hopes for $50 oil. Meanwhile, capital flight is running at perhaps $100 billion a year. Meanwhile, some of Russia’s biggest companies are verging on default. The Russian army has had to cease recruiting in the fertile Caucasus region due to a worrisome overreliance on Muslim troops. Moscow also faces a growing liability in economically failing Crimea and eastern Ukraine, complicated this week by partisan sabotage of Crimea’s electricity supply.

Global stock markets dipped only modestly on the Turkish shootdown. Oil jumped a buck. This muted reaction should not be seen as a testament that Mr. Putin or his regime have much of a future.
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« Reply #78 on: February 25, 2016, 11:16:39 AM »


    As it curbs spending, the Kremlin plans to limit loans to foreign countries, hindering its ability to influence countries to support its agendas.
    Russia will continue granting small loans, or large loans in small tranches over a period of time, to its critical allies.
    Moscow will be more selective in choosing recipients of large, lump-sum loans, targeting recipients based on strategic need.


Russia's limited financial resources continue to hurt the Kremlin's ability to operate as it has over the past decade. High oil prices, and resulting energy revenues, were largely responsible for skyrocketing economic growth since Russian President Vladimir Putin's government took over in 2000 — with the exception of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Prosperity enabled Moscow to spend liberally on its military, its economic development and, more subtly, its loans to countries in exchange for influence. But oil prices have fallen, domestic industry has slowed and the West has placed sanctions on the country that have soured investor sentiment, together creating an economic crisis for Russia. The Kremlin must now make painful decisions to keep its economy afloat, and everything is open to cuts, including foreign loans.

Last year, Russia slipped into its second recession in six years, and there is little optimism that it will end anytime soon. The Russian federal budget will certainly remain strapped this year, as the government uses its National Reserve Fund to cover any deficit more than 3.5 percent. To avoid bailing out large Russian firms and banks, the Kremlin is considering a privatization scheme, but it will likely have little success under the current investor sentiment toward Russia because of its position on Ukraine. Meanwhile, the government has slashed spending in 2016 for every ministry and portfolio except pensions, forcing all sectors to be selective in how to spend their resources. For example, defense spending cuts have left enough funds for Russia's operations in Ukraine and Syria but not for the large-scale military rearmament program Russia needs to maintain a robust and modern military. The Kremlin hinted that it might cut the budget further in the weeks ahead.

Of course, Russia still has reserve funds. Currently, the central bank holds $371.5 billion in currency reserves. The rainy day funds, which overlay with the currency reserves, stand at $49.72 billion in the Reserve Fund and $71.15 billion in the Wealth Fund. But the Kremlin has already blown through half the Reserve Fund in the past year, and in the last recession it saw how quickly currency reserves were spent.

Now the Kremlin is looking at another opportunity for belt-tightening: foreign loans​. Over the past decade, it has used foreign loans from government coffers to press its agenda with and in other countries. These are loans directly from the government's VTB bank, though there are many loans from Russian companies (such as Rosoboronexport, Gazprom and Rosneft) along the same lines. In recent years, these loans were many times not investments at all but incentives to induce the countries to make foreign policy decisions in line with Russia's needs. In addition, the Kremlin often either wrote off the loans, or the terms of the agreement were skewed to become more like a bailout than a loan.
Past Financing

A primary example of this exchange of finances for influence was in Ukraine. In December 2013, Russia offered to purchase $15 billion of Ukraine's debt and give the country a 33 percent discount in natural gas prices. Kiev simultaneously froze negotiations with the European Union over its association agreement. Russia went through with a $3 billion purchase of that debt, though protests soon broke out in Ukraine, leading to the Euromaidan uprising and the collapse of the pro-Russia government. Now, Moscow and a pro-West Kiev are locked in a bitter legal battle over repayment of the $3 billion debt purchase, which Moscow would have likely ignored with the previous government. Kiev argues that the debt purchase was an outright bribe to the previous government to remain in Moscow's camp.

Russia regularly assists its closest allies in the former Soviet region with loans and postponements of repayments. In 2014, Russia granted Belarus a $2 billion loan to keep Minsk close as NATO increased its operations in the region. And in 2015, Russia aided Belarus with its debt repayments ($860 million) as the country weathered its own economic slump. Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan continually receive smaller financial aid packages (in the hundreds of millions of dollars) to stimulate their economies, modernize their militaries and overhaul industry. Kyrgyzstan received a loan of $1 billion in May 2014 in return for joining Russia's then-Customs Union.

Outside of the former Soviet states, Russia offered loans in 2013-2014 to Bulgarian, Greek and Serbian energy and construction firms in exchange for their governments agreeing to Russia's then-proposed South Stream and TurkStream pipeline projects meant to bypass Ukraine to transit natural gas. When both Cyprus and Greece were in search of financial bailouts in recent years, Moscow offered to provide funds. Russia wanted to protect Russian money being held in Cypriot banks and to persuade Greece to break rank with the Europeans and Americans on sanctions over Ukraine. But Germany and other EU countries convinced them otherwise, preventing Russia from doing more than restructuring Cyprus' past loans and giving Greece minor financial assurances through the BRICS bank.
Current Problems

But Russia's increasingly restricted cash supply will curb its previous strategy of throwing money at countries to compel their cooperation. Since mid-2015, Russia slowed doling out smaller loans to foreign countries and has pledged only a few large loans.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev announced that Russia would likely not provide the remaining $1.7 billion loan for its Kambarata hydroelectric plant. Atambayev nullified the 2012 agreement with Russia on Jan. 22 on the grounds that Russia had disbursed only a $300 million tranche of the loan. Nearby Uzbekistan also opposed the project because it would reduce the country's water supply. Since Kyrgyzstan already depends on Russia financially, Moscow will accept the collapse of this agreement. What Moscow will have to watch for is another country — such as China, which is steadily building clout in the region — trying to fill the financial vacuum it leaves.

The Kremlin is also reconsidering its loan to Iran. In November, Moscow and Tehran agreed to a $5 billion loan and a $2.2 billion line of credit. Though the Iranian government confirmed the agreement, Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak indicated in January that the $5 billion loan was not yet finalized. The deal was seen as Russia's attempt to maintain influence with Iran as Tehran begins to open to the West. Previously, Iran had few options for alternative funding, but as Iran and Europe (and eventually the United States) begin to interact once again, Moscow's waning financial influence will diminish even more. 

Furthermore, in November 2015, Russia agreed to loan Egypt $25 billion to construct the country's Dabaa nuclear power plant, covering 85 percent of the building costs. Russia set the terms for Egypt to begin repaying the loan in 2029 and spread the payments over the subsequent 22 years — a favor to financially strapped Cairo. It was taken as a signal Egypt was trying to diversify its relationships with the United States, all while Russia increased its footprint in the Middle East after entering the Syria conflict. The large price tag and upfront costs will burden the Russian government if it fulfills the agreement, though Cairo may become a crucial partner as Moscow tries to play various regional actors and Washington for its own gain.

Finally, Russia looks intent to fulfill a large loan with Hungary. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Moscow on Feb. 17, where Putin confirmed that his country would fulfill their previous agreement for a $10.8 billion loan for the expansion of Hungary's Soviet-era Paks nuclear plant. The agreement had stalled for two years, but Russia's continued commitment looks to be used to persuade Hungary to help Russia build a coalition to end crippling sanctions. Orban said at the news conference with Putin that he did not believe EU sanctions against Russia would automatically renew after they expire in July and that EU countries were beginning to see the need for cooperation. Russia would likely trade the large sum of money for Paks if Hungary would vote against extending sanctions. A statement from General Electric proposing its involvement in the Paks project should Russia step out is probably motivating Moscow to act quickly as well as block further U.S. influence in the region.

One way to help mitigate the financial costs of these large loans could be to give them out in smaller and longer-term tranches instead of lump sums. Russia implied as much with Iran, offering the $2.2 billion credit over two years, while reconsidering the lump $5 billion loan. Russia will continue its policy of smaller loans to its key allies, such as the $200 million loan agreed to with Armenia on Feb. 19. It is unclear if the Kremlin's tradition of writing off many of these loans in gestures of goodwill can continue, but the Kremlin can always restructure the debts of the loans already issued instead of writing off the debts completely.

If Russia neglects these allied states it risks a detrimental breakdown in relations or another country replacing its influence. However, its years of wild spending have forced the Kremlin to pick and choose the countries it assists and how much the Kremlin can spend without breaking its finances.
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Posts: 42521

« Reply #79 on: March 22, 2016, 11:36:39 AM »

Why Putin Wants Syria
by Jiri Valenta and Leni Friedman Valenta
Middle East Quarterly
Spring 2016 (view PDF)

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Russia has been largely landlocked for most of its history, and Moscow has always valued the Crimean peninsula for its coastline (see above). Catherine the Great took the Crimea, founding the port of Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, and established a commercial port in Odessa. But, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in an independent Ukraine, and Moscow lost not only the port of Odessa but its prized naval port of Sevastopol.

Russia's military intervention in Syria that began on September 30, 2015, is its first major intrusion into the Levant since June 1772 when "Russian forces bombarded, stormed, and captured Beirut, a fortress on the coast of Ottoman Syria."[1] Then as now, the Russians backed a ruthless local client; then as now, they found themselves in "a boiling cauldron of factional-ethnic strife, which they tried to simplify with cannonades and gunpowder."[2]

But why? Why did President Vladimir Putin intervene in a faraway country, hundreds of miles away from Russia proper while in the midst of his temporarily frozen proxy war with Ukraine? So far there has been no serious effort to probe the underlying causes of the Kremlin's surprise move, let alone in conjunction with Putin's three other military interventions along Russia's periphery: Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and southeastern Ukraine in 2014-15. Yet it is only by filling in these connecting dots that the key questions concerning the intervention can be addressed: Did Moscow seek confrontation with a view to dismembering NATO and weakening Europe, or did it pursue the much narrower goals of regaining the great power status lost during the Gorbachev-Yeltsin eras and protecting national security and commercial interests? And can the West engage Russia in Syria in a limited partnership against radical Islam as it did in World War II against Nazi Germany, or is any collaboration with the wily Putin simply out of the question?

Landlocked Heartland and Strategic Interests in Crimea

Henry Kissinger has eloquently posited Russia's historical expansion as pursuance of a
special rhythm of its own over the centuries, expanding over land mass ... interrupted occasionally over time ... only to return again, like a tide crossing the beach. From Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin circumstances have changed, but the rhythm has remained extraordinarily consistent.[3]
Winston Churchill had a different explanation:

The Russians will try all the rooms in the house, enter those that are not locked, and when they come to one that cannot be broken into, they will withdraw and invite you to dine genially that same evening.[4]

Both Kissinger's sophisticated discourse and Churchill's analogue, however, need an important qualifier. Russia's expansion has also been the result of a major geopolitical handicap. Except for the Baltic coast, conquered by Peter the Great in the eighteenth century, Russia has been largely landlocked for most of history. In the north, its Arctic Ocean was frozen. In the east, the Pacific was also ice-covered for most of the year. In the south, its Caspian Sea was closed. The Black Sea was open but only through those tiniest of bottlenecks, the Straits of Bosporus and the Dardanelles (or the Turkish Straits), jealously guarded by its Ottoman masters. Small wonder that Russia continually lusted to possess both them and the Crimean peninsula. As early as the seventeenth century, Peter the Great tried to conquer the Crimea, then an Ottoman vassal, but failed.[5]

Putin repeatedly invokes Russia's "strategic interests" in the Crimea.

Only in the late eighteenth century did the Empress Catherine the Great and her paramour, Count Grigory Potemkin, succeed in taking the Crimea, founding the port of Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, and a commercial port in Odessa. Yet despite continual wars with the Ottomans, the Turkish Straits remained beyond Russia's grasp as Britain—and to a lesser extent France and the Kingdom of Sardinia (Italy)—repeatedly came to Turkey's rescue. This culminated in the 1853-56 Crimean war and the attendant Treaty of Paris that kept Russia caged in the Black Sea. It is hardly to be surprised that Putin, an avid student of history, repeatedly invokes Russia's "strategic interests" in the Crimea.

Today, Russia is not as militarily dependent on the Turkish Straits as in the past. But throughout the twentieth century to the present day, and despite the technological revolution and Moscow's formidable air forces, the Turkish Straits have remained a factor for the Russian navy.

The Fall of the USSR

The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was an even larger setback than the Crimean war. Analysts have long focused on the loss to the empire of vast pieces of real estate with the newly-won freedom of the non-Russian republics in the Baltics and the Caucasus as well as the second largest republic, Ukraine. Yet they have not given due consideration to what else Russia lost: waterways, coastlines, and ports, in short—the power of the Russian navy.
Hafez Assad, Bashar's father, signed an agreement permitting Moscow to use the port of Tartus (pictured above) in return for advanced weapons for Syria, thus turning the port into a facility for maintenance of smaller ships in the Black Sea fleet. Then in 2005, Bashar succeeded in having Russia write off three-fourths of Syria's debt for arms sales. Increased Russia-Syrian military cooperation followed with upgrading of the Tartus port for larger ships.

In Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Moscow lost cold water ports acquired by Peter the Great in the eighteenth century for its Baltic fleet. In Ukraine, it lost not only its ownership of the coastline but also the commercial port of Odessa. Most of all, the Russians lost their prized warm water naval port of Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet for more than two centuries. Moscow was now forced to rent it from the newly independent Ukraine.

The economic collapse that followed only made things worse. Lack of resources and two bloody wars in Chechnya brought government cuts to the Black Sea fleet. Russian ships only rarely appeared in the Mediterranean. Then in 2004, Ukraine and Georgia underwent their color revolutions, bringing to their helms two pro-Western leaders—Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine and Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia—who hoped that their nascent states would join, not only the European Union, but eventually the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Worse yet for Russia, Yushchenko wanted the Russian fleet out of Sevastopol at the expiration of the lease in 2017.

Catherine the Great, Putin's most admired Romanov ruler, was shaking in her grave. One need not speculate about Putin. In 2005, who could be sure that NATO ships would not be eventually deployed in Russia's formerly principal, if not sacred, Black Sea port? If Russia lost Sevastopol, where could it go? Another port was needed, but where? Novorossiysk on the Black Sea Coast could be of help, but it is principally a commercial port.

Masters of Military Deception

Flashback to 1971, when President Hafez Assad, father of the present Syrian dictator, signed an agreement permitting Moscow to use Tartus in return for selling advanced weapons to Syria, thus turning the quiet fishing port into a logistical facility for materiel and technical maintenance of smaller ships in Russia's Black Sea fleet. Two years later, Hafez, a Soviet-trained pilot, joined Egypt in preparing an attack on U.S. ally Israel with the help of Russian advisors and arms.

What happened next explodes a decades' long interpretation that the July 1972 expulsion of Soviet advisors from Egypt by Anwar Sadat due to Moscow's refusal to provide the necessary arms for his planned war against Israel generated an unbridgeable schism between the two states.[6] As revealed in the declassified diary of Gorbachev's foreign policy advisor Anatoly Chernyaev, unbeknown to the outside world, Moscow quickly patched relations with Cairo thus turning its temporary setback into a ruse that would help lull the Israelis into the 1973 Yom Kippur surprise. As Chernyaev, then a senior official of the International Department of the Communist Party's CentralCommittee, recorded in his diary on July 15, 1972:

This [Sadat's demand for Soviet advisors withdrawal] began a turmoil. Egypt's premier Sidki was persuaded to come to Moscow, and, I think, they have settled it ... they must have given much to him, if not all he wanted. President of Syria Assad, too, a week ago ... has forced us to practically approve the "military solution" and received a lot from us.[7]

This version was reaffirmed on the first anniversary of the war by the Egyptian government-controlled Ruz al-Yusuf magazine:

The various government agencies spread rumors and stories that were exaggerated, to say the least, about deficiencies, both quantitative and qualitative, regarding the weapons required to begin the battle against Israel, at the very time that ... the two parties—Egypt and the USSR—had reached agreement [on weapons that] in fact, were beginning to arrive.[8]

The concept of military deception is a permanent feature of Russian interventionism.

Last but not least, Egyptian president Sadat himself claimed two years after the war that his 1972-73 tiff with the Soviets had been "a strategic cover—a splendid strategic distraction for our going to war."[9]

The concept of military deception, or maskirovka, is a permanent feature of Russian interventionism. But, it encompasses a broader definition than the Western one. Deception may include camouflage, disinformation, traps, blackmail, and diplomatic cunning. As such it enables strategic surprise and/or timing that will stun the enemy, thus ensuring the success of the mission.[10]

Abkhazia and Tartus

Along both its pre- and post-1991 borders, Russia has continually sought to effect regime change whenever the leaders of the non-Russian republics within Russia (e.g. Chechnya) or at its new periphery (Ukraine and Georgia) tilted toward the West. In 2005, having decisively won the second Chechen war with the complete destruction of its capital Grozny, Putin was able to focus on possible regime change in Tbilisi (Saakashvili) and Kiev (Yushchenko). Unlike with landlocked Chechnya, both Ukraine and Georgia were littoral states of the Black Sea. A main geopolitical concern of the Kremlin was regaining ports and access for its navy. But the primary issue was Sevastopol—the traditional site of the Black Sea fleet. Getting rid of Ukraine's Yushchenko and Georgia's Saakashvili, thus meant regaining essential coastlines for the Russian navy. Its lease was up in 2017, and Moscow needed to find another suitable warm water port.

Russia has sought to effect regime change whenever the leaders of the non-Russian republics within Russia tilted toward the West.

Hafez Assad's successor, son Bashar, was quick to seize the opportunity. He visited Moscow in 2005 and succeeded in having three-fourths of Syria's external debt to Russia for arms sales written off.[11] The move became an impetus for renewed Russian-Syrian military cooperation in upgrading the port of Tartus for larger ships.

At around the same time, Putin began to seriously consider plans for the invasion of Georgia with particular interest in the province of Abkhazia, occupying half of Georgia's eastern Black Sea coastline. Analysts have mistakenly viewed Georgia as just another Caucasus country, but from the Russian navy's point of view, it is precious real estate on the Black Sea littoral.

Georgia not only contained a former Russian port, Ochampchire, but an airbase, Bombura—once the largest in the Caucasus. As an ethnic enclave with Orthodox believers and many Russian speakers, the Abkhazians had not been thrilled when Georgia obtained independence, correctly fearing the loss of their special status as an autonomous republic. Like South Ossetia, another ethnic enclave in the Caucasus Mountains, Abkhazians were in repeated conflict with Georgia and sought support from Russia. Furious residents had even undertaken ethnic cleansing of Georgians.
All of this fitted snugly with Putin's plans. In 2006, the Russian army began building a railroad in Abkhazia, traditional transportation for Russian armed forces. As the Russian consulate began to distribute passports, Putin added additional "peace-keeping" troops to Abkhazia, alleging a Georgian planned attack.

The Russian Navy Invades Georgia

On August 7, 2008, President George W. Bush met Putin at the Olympic Games in Beijing where he was told about the fighting in South Ossetia: "There are lots of volunteers being gathered in the region [South Ossetia], and it's very hard to withhold them from taking part. A real war is going on."[12] What Putin did not tell his peer, however, was that he had set a trap for the Georgian army in South Ossetia, that the Russian navy would soon invade Abkhazia, and that he had ordered a cyber-attack on the Georgian government.

Within twenty-four hours, Putin had already appeared in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia's fortress, to oversee the invasion. When the Georgian army arrived to put down (supposed) riots in the South Ossetian capital, the Russian army poured through a tunnel on the Georgian military highway into South Ossetia and beyond. A classic trap was sprung. Simultaneously came the amphibious landing in Abkhazia's port of Ochampchire by 4,000 navy and army commandos under commander-in-chief of the Black Sea fleet, Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky. On August 10, a naval encounter between Georgian and Russian ships took place, and within days, Georgia's entire fleet of coast guard patrol vessels had been destroyed.[13] The Russian navy was back. Ochampchire, once restored, would provide control of Georgian waters all the way to the Turkish border.

On September 12, 2008, a month after Abkhazia's conquest, the Kremlin announced the speeding up of the Tartus port renovation and expansion as Vysotsky met with his Syrian counterpart Gen. Taleb Bari, to set the process in motion. In 2009, the value of Russian military contracts reached $19.4 billion as floating docks and coastal infrastructure facilities were repaired in Tartus. Eventually, the Russian navy deployed mobile coastal missile systems, anti-ship missiles, and boats, and built warehouse barracks. As an unnamed Kremlin official remarked in the Russian media, "Everything has changed since the war on Georgia—what seemed impossible before when our friends became our enemies and our enemies became our friends ... A number of possibilities are being considered, including hitting America where it hurts most—Iran and Syria."[14]

The Crimea Is Next

"The Crimea is next," predicted Za Za Gachechiladze, the prominent editor-in-chief of Tbilisi's The Messenger.[15] In an editorial, he wrote, "Now it is the Ukraine's turn ... all this is happening while Western countries are hesitating about creating a clear-cut strategy to stop Russia, whose appetite ... is increasing."[16]

Georgia had indeed marked a change in the Kremlin's strategic thinking, and Putin would strike in Crimea when the time was ripe. Nor did he believe that Washington would greatly protest. The U.S. administration was clearly willing to forgive him for attacking sovereign Georgia. Earlier that year, U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton had pushed a big red reset button with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, and Russian decision-making on a new intervention always considers the U.S. response to the last one. Also overlooked was the Russian legislature's amending of the constitution. This permitted Putin to take military action abroad anywhere to protect Russian speakers and Russian military (e.g., in Crimea or Syria). During the Yeltsin era, they could only do so to combat terrorism or participate in U.N.-sponsored international operations. Now the government could take military action against any foreign country without authorization from the Duma.[17]

But the time was not yet ripe to strike in the Crimea. In 2010, came a new Ukraine election, and the winner was Viktor Yanukovych. Coming from the eastern Ukraine, he was staunchly pro-Kremlin, so Putin could relax. In return for discounted Russian gas, Yanukovych gladly extended the lease on Sevastopol to 2046.

Follow the Russian Pipelines

In 2011, however, a problem arose with Tartus. Syria erupted in a bloody civil war and ethnic ferment that threatened more than just Russian military assets. Syria is a major energy hub of the Middle East. As Russian analyst Alexei Sarabeyev put it,

The peculiarity of the port of Tartus ... is that the major Syrian pipeline originating from the northeastern areas of the country feeds in this port. Besides, oil storage facilities are located in neighboring Banias.[18]

Syria is not just a transfer state but also has large gas deposits in its Homs field.

Bashar Assad decides whose pipelines go through Syria, another reason Putin supports him.

Seventy percent of Russia's foreign income comes from oil and gas exports. Sixty percent of the state budget is from energy export revenues. As a vacationing official economist in Sochi told these authors, "Don't follow just our navy; follow our pipelines."[19] The pipelines, of course, passed through energy transfer states Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine on their way to European markets—all states no longer under Putin's control.

Bashar Assad decides which and whose pipelines go through Syria, another reason Putin supports him. In 2009, the Syrian president refused to sign a gas agreement with Qatar—a major producer of liquefied gas (LNG)—which wanted to run a pipeline from Iran through Turkey and Syria. But the deal would have bypassed Russia, and Assad turned it down.

The Kremlin's Lessons from Libya

A number of events conditioned Russia's decision to deter a U.S. attack on Assad in 2013 and also to stage a military operation in Syria in 2015. One of these was the lesson of Libya. In 2011, Washington persuaded Moscow not to veto a Security Council resolution against Libyan dictator Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi, which launched what Secretary of State Clinton described as a "humanitarian mission" to prevent the killing of Libyan civilians by the dictator's forces. But as NATO intensified its bombing air campaign, it became clear that the international intervention was mainly focused on getting rid of Qaddafi with a view to nation building—something that had miserably failed in Iraq under the George W. Bush administration.[20]

The 2003 Iraq war, though, had a positive side. Reluctant to follow in Saddam Hussein's unfortunate path, Qaddafi abandoned his quest for a nuclear program and began working with Washington against the rising tide of Islamist terrorism. Paradoxically, the Western-supported rebels who toppled and killed the long-reigning Libyan dictator included many Islamists. To Putin, however, Qaddafi had clearly been a stabilizing force.

Putin may have also learned from Hillary Clinton's unsecured e-mail communications that U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens had met with the Turkish consul general hours before he was killed. The two were working on an arms transfer from Libya to Syria—for the purpose of overthrowing yet another dictator, Assad.[21]

The lesson of Libya for the Russians was that they should not have approved the U.N. resolution that helped the U.S.-backed NATO intervention. Convinced that they had been deliberately misled,[22] they would subsequently block any future U.N. resolution proposing military action against Assad.
Then-president Dmitri Medvedev expressed his concern about the rise of Islamic terrorism in Libya to U.S. officials.

But the situation in Libya attending Qaddafi's overthrow was worrisome to the Kremlin for other reasons. In 2011, then-president Dmitri Medvedev expressed to U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates and vice president Joe Biden his great concern about the rise of Islamic terrorism in Libya. "If Libya breaks up, and al-Qaida takes root there, no one will benefit, including us, because the extremists will end up in the North Caucasus."[23]

Medvedev could have added that extremists from the North Caucasus were also traveling to Syria with the help of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB). Novaia Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina documented that the FSB had helped Chechen and Dagestan rebels to reach Syria on safe routes via Turkey.[24] Indeed, the number of terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus was halved from 2014 to 2015, from 525 to an estimated 260.[25] Russian special services, however, were and still are worried about returning jihadists.[26]

Obama's Red Line and Putin's Preemptive Diplomacy

In August 2013, the Syrian regime was reported to have used chemical weapons on rebel enclaves, killing some 1,300 civilians. Assad appeared to have crossed President Obama's "red line" on use of such weapons. Washington deployed four destroyers near the Syrian coast equipped with missiles, threatening the Syrian regime. But Putin helped to defuse the crisis by brokering a deal for Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons.

Another event conditioning Putin's decision-making regarding further interventions was a major crisis over Assad's reported use of chemical weapons. On August 21, 2013, the Syrian regime was reported to have used chemical warfare on rebel enclaves, killing some 1,300 civilians. With this atrocity, Assad appeared to have crossed President Obama's "red line" on chemical weapons and risked a strong U.S. response.[27] Putin and even some U.S allies, however, claimed that the attacks were carried out by anti-Assad guerillas as a "premeditated provocation."[28] In any event, on August 27, Washington deployed four destroyers near the Syrian coast equipped with Tomahawk Cruise missiles whose initial mission was to punish the Syrian regime.[29]
By then, Putin was heavily invested in the largely completed renovation of Tartus for which Russia had a 50-year lease and was also planning future pipelines for Syria. With U.S. forces so close, Putin decided not to permit regime change in Damascus as he had in Tripoli. Still, he must have understood that direct confrontation between his navy and the superior U.S. forces was not a smart choice for Russia. Rear Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov, chairman of the Russian legislature's Defense Committee and former commander-in-chief of the Black Sea fleet, confirmed this and warned that the Russian navy could not match the U.S. Navy in the eastern Mediterranean:

Unfortunately, the force we've assembled there is made up of pretty aged ships built 30 years ago. To compete with the United States, we need a fresh horse.[30]

Putin, however, also wagered that Obama would not opt for a direct confrontation with Russia. Thus, sailing to the fray were some aged Russian navy ships. But equipped with modern rocket systems and nuclear torpedoes, even an old ship can be formidable. Russia also mobilized its armed forces, as did Iran's Revolutionary Guards, while Moscow's foreign ministry warned that U.S. intervention in Syria could have "catastrophic consequences."[31]
One Russian analyst suggested that in the event of a U.S. attack on Syria, Russia should invade the Baltic states.

On August 27, as Obama met with the three leaders of the Baltic republics, Putin had one of his senior analysts, Mikhail Aleksandrov, publish an especially provocative article, which could not have appeared without Kremlin approval. Head of the Baltics section of the Moscow Institute, CIS, funded by the Russian ministry of foreign affairs, Aleksandrov suggested that in the event of a U.S. attack on Syria, Russia should invade the Baltic states, claiming that "half of the population of Latvia and Estonia will meet the Russian troops with flowers as it was in 1940."[32]

Putin's deterrence, pressures, and public diplomacy—he even went so far as to write a New York Times op-ed—must have ultimately worked. Obama backed down, as Putin foresaw. The Russian president then helped his counterpart to defuse the crisis by brokering a deal to help Assad get rid of his chemical weapons.

Regaining the Crimea

Having rescued his Syrian client, Putin now sought to save his Ukrainian protégé Yanukovych, who had narrowly won the 2010 elections with the Kremlin's support. While a kleptocratic leader could be tolerated in moderation, Yanukovych, who had been jailed twice for corruption in 2004, was a major leaguer. Eventually, the Ukrainian people could not tolerate his disregard of their inclination toward the European Union.[33] In January 2014, someone fired into a large crowd of peaceful protestors igniting an armed revolution. A further turning point came on February 22 as the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove Yanukovych. But what few in the West understood was that the future of Sevastopol was not secure if the pro-Western revolution in Kiev won. Having saved Yanukovych's life, Putin turned to the strategic Crimean peninsula telling his presidential council, "We will have to start work to return the Crimea to Russia."[34]

As in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, most Crimeans are Russian speakers with 60 percent ethnically Russian. Yet the peninsula's large Tartar minority of about 30 percent have never cared for Russian rule, hence their mass deportation by Stalin to Central Asia in WWII. The Ukrainian army was rag-tag, but Putin feared that the Muslim Tartars might resist the Crimea's annexation as they had Catherine's in 1784.

Once again, Putin's attendance at the winter Olympic Games in Sochi turned into perfect maskirovka. Despite large scale, nonstop Russian troop maneuvers near the Crimea, U.S. intelligence failed to anticipate the February 28, 2014 invasion. Once the Olympics ended, the invasion began, followed in short order by annexation.

What is particularly significant is how Putin justified this bold and illegal act—not only on strategic but also on historical and religious grounds. In December 2014, for example, he stretched the historical account of St. Vladimir, founder of the ancient Kievan Rus federation, by placing the saint's christening in the Crimea rather than in Kiev, saying that it gives us every reason to state that for Russia, the Crimea, ancient Korsun, the Chersonese, Sevastopol have an enormous civilizational and sacral meaning—in the same way as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is meaningful for those who confess Islam or Judaism.[35]

Whether or not Putin's evolution from a servant of atheistic communism to defender of the faith is genuine is irrelevant. After the fall of the Soviet empire, Russia returned to its Orthodox roots, and so did Putin. Hence, while authorizing a selective crackdown on human rights activists throughout Russia, Putin has been an ardent supporter of the Orthodox Church at home and of Christian minorities in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. He also met with the pope on June 10, 2015, who asked him to help the cause of peace in Ukraine and Syria.

Intervention in Southeastern Ukraine

On April 18, 2014, by way of consolidating his Crimean conquest, Putin set his sights on yet another target. He explained that the southeastern Ukrainian lands of Novorossiya ("New Russia"), also conquered by Catherine the Great, were not part of Ukraine in her time. However, Putin did not admit that his primary reason was geopolitical—a littoral corridor from Russia to the Crimea through the strategic Black Sea port of Mariupol to Odessa.
Emboldened by the passive Western response to his Crimean venture, Putin launched a new intervention by proxy through Russian eastern separatists, "volunteers," Cossacks, "vacationing soldiers," even paid criminals, as well as Russian special forces. Residents of the Russia-friendly southeastern Ukraine were propagandized into fury against Kiev. Seeking to rejoin Russia, as did the Crimeans, they declared two new people's republics: Donetsk and Lugansk. Weeks thereafter, violence erupted in Odessa.

A firm U.S. response was required, yet the Obama administration would not provide arms to Kiev because of its perceived need to have Russia's support for the Iran nuclear deal. This weak reaction, however, only added to Moscow's eventual commitment of 10,000 regular troops in the Ukraine, augmented by 40,000 at the borders. But then came Putin's miscalculation. The Ukrainian army vigorously defended important routes, strategic railroad hubs, and airports, denying Russia essential strategic surprise. With the support of Western intelligence and economic aid, this solid resistance paid a high cost in blood, but Kiev did not succumb. In July 2014, Washington finally applied tougher energy sanctions which, together with sharp declines in oil prices, halved Russia's oil and gas revenues.[36]

Charging into Syria

In the summer of 2015, Assad, like Yanukovich earlier, was fighting for his survival. Various groups of rebels, supported by the Sunni regimes of Turkey and Saudi Arabia as well as the United States, were advancing. Assad and his Alawite-based regime were on the ropes with the military losing ground by the day. In July, the regime asked for Russia's direct military intervention.[37] Using Brezhnev's 1973 Yom Kippur play book and his own Georgia and Ukraine maskirovka, Putin was giving different signals—even that of replacing Assad.[38] Whatever Putin intended, he decided to stick with the Syrian dictator at this juncture.

Though U.S. observers questioned Putin's motives, his secondary objective in Syria was fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus had declined in 2015, ISIS was metastasizing in northern Afghanistan and could, over the long run, affect Russia's Central Asian allies. Putin surely worried about North Caucasians returning to fight in Russia.

By early 2015, the term "New Russia" had virtually vanished from Putin's vocabulary. He viewed the growing, armed resistance to the Assad regime as an immediate threat to Russia's national interests. Traditionally Moscow does not fight simultaneously on two fronts. In the meantime, a Russian Defense Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that, beginning in September or earlier, the "special forces were pulled out of Ukraine and sent to Syria."[39]
Assam Soleimani, head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, is much respected in Moscow for his military prowess. Arriving secretly in the Russian capital, the general confirmed that the Assad regime was in serious difficulties but could be rescued through a joint Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah intervention.
Putin must have calculated that if Syria could be won and Western sanctions lifted without significant concessions, it would strengthen the eventual return to his New Russia policy and Black Sea littoral corridor, unless, of course, Washington linked resolution of both the Syrian and Ukraine conflicts. He reportedly told a visiting Iranian senior official in late July 2015, "Okay, we will intervene. Send Assam Soleimani." Gen. Soleimani, head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is much respected in Moscow for his military prowess. Arriving secretly in the Russian capital, the general confirmed that the Assad regime was in serious difficulties but could be rescued through a joint Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah intervention.[40]

Iran is an important strategic ally for Russia. Like Syria, it has been buying Russian weapons systems, engaging in cooperative pipeline projects, and buying nuclear power plants. The conclusion of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal on July 14, 2015, in Vienna was also a game-changer. Putin, having helped Obama broker the deal, had waited to make any Syria decision until the agreement was concluded. Now, with the deal done and Iran sanctions soon to be lifted, Tehran could readily pay for Russia's long-range S-300 anti-aircraft system. Putin also hoped that, now, Iran-U.S. relations would improve, making it easier for Russia to work with Iran and Hezbollah to protect Assad.
Airmen inspect a Russian airplane at Syria's Latakia airfield. In September 2015, U.S. satellite pictures showed a rapid buildup of equipment at the Russian air force and naval bases in Syria, including advanced fighter jets. On November 24, 2015, a Russian fighter was downed by Turkish forces after allegedly violating Turkish air space. The plane crashed in the mountainous Jabal Turkmen area of the Syrian province of Latakia, an area contested by Assad's government and rebel forces.

Mulling his options, in September Putin invited his old friend, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, to the annexed Crimea to discuss Ukraine and Syria. Prior to the visit, Italian news sources revealed that Berlusconi planned "to include Putin in an anti-terrorist campaign, promoting a diplomatic initiative that could lift the anti-Russian sanctions and defrost relations with the U.S."[41]

Putin's diplomacy was now moving into high gear. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place for him, however, with the dramatic turnaround of de facto EU leader, Germany's Angela Merkel. The immigration crisis, including the massive exodus of migrants fleeing war torn Syria, became the final game-changer. By now, with hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants flooding Germany and thousands of others charging across Europe, Merkel was seeking to somehow put the lid on Pandora's box. To her, the United States under Obama had ceased to be the indispensable power. As she put it:

We have to speak with many actors, this includes Assad, but others as well. Not only with the United States of America, Russia, but with important regional partners, Iran, and Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia.[42]

Like the CIA, Germany's intelligence agency knew about the military buildup in Tartus and Syria's Latakia airfield. However, the CIA could not divine Putin's intentions. Merkel's remarkable turnaround did not get much notice in Washington with Obama focusing on Iran and Cuba. But getting Merkel's blessing was the final green light for Putin. The U.S. president was heading for a big surprise.

Fortune Favors the Bold

In the concluding phases of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Egyptian third army corps was surrounded by Israeli forces and faced imminent annihilation unless an immediate ceasefire was reached. Soviet leaders, with their proposed joint superpower mission to save Egypt having been declined, sent a strongly-worded message to the White House warning that they would act alone. As a result, U.S. armed forces were put on combat alert as they had been during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

However, Russia did not go it alone. In the words of eye-witness Washington ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin,
In spite of the blunt message of [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev, the Kremlin ... did not have any intention of intervening in the Middle East ... it would have been reckless both politically and militarily.[43]

In 2015, however, the man in the White House was not Richard Nixon, an experienced master of statecraft, brilliant, tough, and cunning, with his sidekick Henry Kissinger, even amidst his Watergate inferno. This time Putin's counterpart was a former community organizer-turned-junior senator-turned president, a well-meaning proponent of the "leading from behind" strategy, a man whose "strategic patience" to his critics, was a euphemism for cluelessness.

For most of September 2015, U.S satellite pictures showed a rapid buildup of equipment in the Russian air force and naval bases in Syria, including advanced Sukhoi Flanker fighter jets. Now the renovation of Tartus paid off as had the railroad built in Abkhazia.

On September 21, Putin consulted with Tehran's nemesis, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the Kremlin, along with top Israeli military and security officials. Afterward, the Israeli leader reported that both countries had agreed to a joint mechanism for preventing military mishaps.[44]
Putin's battle against terrorism may be one of the reasons he sympathizes with and has established mutually beneficial relations with Israel.

Putin is the only Russian leader to have twice visited the holy city of Jerusalem. His own merciless battle against terrorism may be one of the reasons he sympathizes with the Jews and has established mutually beneficial relations with Israel. Small wonder that Israel abstained from arms deliveries to Georgia after the 2008 Russian invasion and to Ukraine after the Crimea incursion.

In August 2008, Putin had met with President Bush on the eve of the Georgia invasion. Seven years later, on September 28, 2015, it was Obama's turn to meet with the Russian president, this time at the U.N. Although the full details of their conversation were not disclosed, Putin apparently did not reveal the timing of the coming intervention. His contemptuous message to Obama, delivered to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on August 29 by a Russian military attaché, said it all: Moscow was launching air strikes in one hour. Washington was to stay out of the way.[45]

Putin's Strategic Challenge

Putin did not charge into Syria without thinking through the endgame. The intervention was the culmination of a chain of events that began with the 1991 fall of the Soviet empire, and Putin concentrated on only a few options. His aim seemed clear: reestablishing Russia's presence in the Black Sea and through the Turkish Straits to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and Middle East in littoral Russian Azov and Black Sea coastal areas. Unlike his Soviet predecessors, he has avoided large invasions and long occupations of landlocked countries (e.g., Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan).

The perception of Obama as a leader unwilling to use force undoubtedly whetted Putin's appetite to do just that, albeit in a limited way. In particular, the 2013 Russian deterrence of Obama's strike against Assad may have emboldened Putin to stage the almost flawless (and bloodless) 2014 Crimean invasion. That in turn likely strengthened his resolve for his unprecedented moves in eastern Ukraine and now in Syria.

Rather than seeking to dismember NATO, Russia sought to protect its national security and commercial and religious interests. The weakening of NATO became Putin's objective as he lost Kiev and finally faced tough Western energy sanctions and as NATO furnished non-lethal aid to Kiev.

Fighting Islamism Together?

A limited partnership with Russia against Islamism is feasible just as it was in World War II against the Nazis. Both Washington and Moscow have powerful incentives and common interests in stability as ISIS continues to metastasize globally.

A limited partnership with Russia against Islamism is feasible just as it was in World War II against the Nazis.

Achieving this goal, however, requires shedding the Cold War axiom that Russia cannot have naval facilities in the Middle East. Instead, Washington must do its utmost to reassert its own presence in the Middle East in collaboration with those allies alienated by the Obama administration. Clearly, any alliance with Russia will not be easy, and the West must not be starry-eyed about a new relationship with Putin and in a hurry to reduce Ukrainian sanctions in the wake of the Muslim invasion of Europe. Putin is notoriously deceptive, giving with one hand and taking with the other. He is also allied with Tehran, whose hegemonic ambitions and terror sponsorship are certain to rise following the lifting of the international sanctions. Yet U.S. policymakers can surely make the case that, in the final account, Moscow's long-term interest is more closely aligned to Washington's and America's Judeo-Christian tradition than to the Islamist regime in Tehran with its regional, and beyond, hegemonic ambitions.

Putin is right to support the sustenance of Alawite governing structures, particularly in the western part of Syria, as the only viable alternative to the country's takeover by the Islamists. But keeping Assad in power will not ease the situation. Bashar must clearly step down in favor of another Alawite ruler and any such future agreement has to be underwritten by the U.S. administration, the EU, Russia, and the leading Arab states.

The nascent partnership with Russia can be jeopardized by further internationalization of the Syrian conflict. One problem is Sunni support for the insurgents, such as the Turkish tribes in northern Syria. Another is Iran's proxy Hezbollah, which is heavily involved in the fighting. Moreover, increasing military aid to various parties can escalate the conflict and implicate other actors. Recent Russian transfers of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah are the most palpable examples.[46] Though intended for defense of the Assad regime, they can also be used against Israel at a later stage.

Finally, the tensions between Putin and Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following the shooting down of a Russian plane that strayed into Turkish territory are indicative of the precariousness of the situation. As prominent Russian analyst Andrey Kortunov warned the Kremlin, the attempt of "any exalted politicians" to punish Turkey is fraught with danger:

Ankara has many ways to make life harder for Moscow, ranging from changing its energy import preferences to the Gulf to utilizing its influence over the numerous communities of Crimean Tatar descendants in Turkey in ways detrimental to Russia's interests.[47]

Meanwhile Turkey, an unreliable U.S. ally at best, is more interested in containing the Kurds, faithful U.S. allies, both in Syria and Iraq, than in going after ISIS. In short, the Syrian situation is evocative of the Spanish civil war of the 1930s when the internationalization of a domestic conflict helped pave the road to a global war.

As the past is often prologue to the future, it remains to be seen whether Putin's bold Syrian venture will help to transform the Middle East inferno into a more peaceful region. One decisive factor is the dramatic decline of oil prices, very injurious to Russia. A second factor will be the statecraft of the new U.S. president, ideally, one who does not lead from behind and who possesses the proper alchemy of toughness, creativity, and patience to help accomplish the deed.

Jiri Valenta is president of the Institute of Post-Communist Studies and Terrorism, and the author, among other books, of Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968, Anatomy of a Decision (Johns Hopkins University, 1991). He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Leni Friedman Valenta is a contributor to many national and international newspapers and magazines, including The National Interest, Aspen Review, and Kiev Post. She is editor-in-chief of the couple's website at
[1] Simon Sebag Montefiore, "Putin's Imperial Adventure in Syria," The New York Times, Oct. 9, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Henry Kissinger, World Order (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2015), p. 52.
[4] Walter Issacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), p. 364.
[5] For a similar geopolitical interpretation, see Efraim Karsh, The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), chap. 5.
[6] See, for example, Efraim Karsh, "Moscow and the Yom Kippur War: A Reappraisal," Soviet Jewish Affairs, Feb. 1986, pp. 3 19.
[7] Spyridon Mitsotakis, "Forty Years Later: Soviet/Arab Secret of Yom Kippur War," P.J. Media, Oct. 5, 2013.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Michele A. Berdy, "Russia's 'Maskirovka' Keeps Us Guessing," The Moscow Times, July 31, 2-14; Jiri Valenta, "Soviet Use of Surprise and Deception," Survival (London), 1982, pp. 50-61.
[11] The Daily Star (Beirut), Jan. 26, 2005.
[12] CNN, Aug. 8, 2008.
[13] Wired (San Francisco), Aug. 15, 2008; Deborah Sanders, Maritime Power in the Black Sea (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2014), p. 126.
[14] "Russia lines up with Syria, Iran against America and the West," Second Light Forums, Sept. 16, 2008.
[15] Interview with authors, Sept. 19, 2009, Tbilsi.
[16] Za Za Gachechiladze, "Russia Will Increase Its Pressure on Ukraine," The Messenger (Tbilisi), Sept. 18, 2009.
[17] "Legalizing Aggression," Geopolitics, quoted in The Messenger, Sept. 11, 2009.
[18] Alexei Sarabeyev, "Russia-Syrian, 'Present-Future': Naval Aspect," Russian International Affairs Council, Moscow, Oct. 31, 2011.
[19] Authors interview, Sochi, Russia, Aug. 14, 2010.
[20] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2014), p. 530.
[21] Fox News, Oct. 25, 2012.
[22] Gates, Duty, p. 530.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Novaya Gazeta (Moscow), July 29, 2015; see also, Paul Goble, "FSB Helps Islamists from Russia Go to Syria, Only Worried When They Come Back, 'Novaya Gazeta' Says," Window on Eurasia Blog, July 30, 2015.
[25] Eurasia Daily Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C., Jan. 7, 2016.
[26] The New York Times, Nov. 20, 2015.
[27] Bloomberg News Service (New York), Aug. 21, 2012; The Guardian (London), Feb. 8, 2013; Haaretz (Tel Aviv), May 4, 2013; Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2013.
[28] ABC News, Aug. 22, Sept. 6, 2013.
[29] The Washington Free Beacon, Aug. 27, 2013.
[30] The Guardian, Sept. 12, 2013.
[31] ABC News, Aug. 27, 2013.
[32] Lithuania Tribune (online), Aug. 29, 2013, accessed Jan. 25, 2016.
[33] Ukraine Today TV (Kiev), Dec. 20, 2015.
[34] The Guardian, Mar. 9, 2015.
[35] Pravoslavie (Moscow), Dec. 5, 2014.
[36] The Washington Post, July 16, 2014.
[37] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Oct. 14, 2015.
[38] The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 25, 2015; Bloomberg News, Sept. 13, 2015.
[39] Headlines & Global News (New York), Oct. 25, 2014; The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 23, 2015.
[40] Reuters, Oct. 6, 2015.
[41] Russia beyond the Headlines (Moscow), Sept. 9, 2015; Freeworld and Friends World, Sept. 16, 2015.
[42] The Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2015.
[43] Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence, Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents, 1962-1986 (New York: Time Books, 1995), p. 301.
[44] Defense News (Springfield, Va.), Dec. 1, 2015.
[45] The Washington Post, Sept. 30, 2015; The Telegraph (London), Sept. 30, 2015.
[46] YNet News (Tel Aviv), Jan. 15, 2016.
[47] Andrey Kortunov, "The Russian-Turkish Crisis: a Deficit of Strategic Depth," Russian International Affairs Council, Jan. 4, 2016.
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« Reply #80 on: April 25, 2016, 11:44:17 PM »

Hat tip to Big Dog for this one:

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian military rotted away. In one of the most dramatic campaigns of peacetime demilitarization in world history, from 1988 to 1994, Moscow’s armed forces shrank from five million to one million personnel. As the Kremlin’s defense expenditures plunged from around $246 billion in 1988 to $14 billion in 1994, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the government withdrew some 700,000 servicemen from Afghanistan, Germany, Mongolia, and eastern Europe. So much had the prestige of the military profession evaporated during the 1990s that when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea in 2000, its captain was earning the equivalent of $200 per month.

From 1991 to 2008, during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and the first presidential term of Vladimir Putin, Russia used its scaled-down military within the borders of the former Soviet Union, largely to contain, end, or freeze conflicts there. Over the course of the 1990s, Russian units intervened in ethnic conflicts in Georgia and Moldova and in the civil war in Tajikistan—all minor engagements. Even for the operation in Chechnya, where Yeltsin sent the Russian military in 1994 in an attempt to crush a separatist rebellion, the Russian General Staff was able to muster only 65,000 troops out of a force that had, in theory, a million men under arms.

    Russia is back as a serious military force in Eurasia.

Beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union, Russia acted meekly. It sought a partnership with the United States and at times cooperated with NATO, joining the peacekeeping operation led by that alliance in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996. To be sure, after realizing in the mid-1990s that NATO membership was off the table, Moscow protested vehemently against the alliance’s eastern expansion, its 1999 bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but Russia was too weak to block any of these moves. The Kremlin’s top priority for military development remained its nuclear deterrent, which it considered the ultimate guarantor of Russia’s security and sovereignty.

Those days of decay and docility are now gone. Beginning in 2008, Putin ushered in military reforms and a massive increase in defense spending to upgrade Russia’s creaky military. Thanks to that project, Russia has recently evinced a newfound willingness to use force to get what it wants. First, in February 2014, Moscow sent soldiers in unmarked uniforms to wrest control of Crimea from Ukraine, implicitly threatening Kiev with a wider invasion. It then provided weaponry, intelligence, and command-and-control support to the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region, checking Kiev’s attempts to defeat them. And then, in the fall of 2015, Russia ordered its air and naval forces to bomb militants in Syria fighting President Bashar al-Assad, intervening directly in the Middle East for the first time in history.

These recent interventions are a far cry from the massive campaigns the Soviet Union used to undertake. But the fact is, Russia is once again capable of deterring any other great power, defending itself if necessary, and effectively projecting force along its periphery and beyond. After a quarter century of military weakness, Russia is back as a serious military force in Eurasia.

MAXIM SHEMETOV / REUTERS Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, June 2012.


The story of Russia’s military modernization begins with its 2008 war in Georgia. In August of that year, Russian forces routed troops loyal to the pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and secured the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as Russian protectorates. The five-day campaign was a clear success: Moscow prevented NATO from expanding into a former Soviet state that was flirting with membership, confirmed its strategic supremacy in its immediate southern and western neighborhood, and marked the limits of Western military involvement in the region. By increasing its military footprint in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia also bolstered its control of two strategically important areas in Transcaucasia—securing the approach to Sochi, the location of the Russian president’s southern residence and Russia’s informal third capital, in the former, and placing Russian forces within striking distance of Tbilisi in the latter.

Yet for all these gains, Russia fought its brief war against Georgia with unreformed, bulky remnants of the Soviet military. Russian soldiers were forced to use outdated weaponry, and Russian officers, overseeing troops who were insufficiently prepared for combat, even had to give orders using civilian cell phones after their military radios failed. By the end of the conflict, Russia had lost five military aircraft, including a strategic bomber. Moscow won the war against a much weaker enemy, but the flaws in its own military were too glaring to ignore.

And so two months after its war with Georgia, the Kremlin embarked on an ambitious program of defense modernization and military restructuring. These efforts, which Russian officials have projected will cost some $700 billion by 2020, are intended to transform the Russian military from a massive standing force designed for global great-power war into a lighter, more mobile force suited for local and regional conflicts. Moscow has pledged to streamline its command-and-control system, improve the combat readiness of its troops, and reform procurement. And in a radical break from a model that had been in place since the 1870s, Russia adopted a flexible force structure that will allow it to quickly deploy troops along the country’s periphery without undertaking mass mobilization.

Russia’s defense industry, meanwhile, began to provide this changing force with modern weapons systems and equipment. In 2009, after a hiatus of about two decades, during which the Kremlin cut off funding for all but company- or battalion-level exercises, Russian forces began to undertake large-scale military exercises, often without prior warning, to improve their combat readiness. Perhaps most important, Russian soldiers, sailors, and airmen came to be paid more or less decently. By the time the Ukraine crisis broke out, Russia’s military was far stronger than the disorganized and poorly equipped force that had lumbered into Georgia just five and a half years before.


The Russian military executed the Crimea operation brilliantly, rapidly seizing the peninsula with minimal casualties. Blueprints for the takeover must have existed for years, at least since Ukraine expressed interest in joining NATO in 2008. But it took a reformed military, plus a remarkable degree of coordination among Russia’s various services and agencies, to pull it off.

The operation in Crimea was not a shooting war, but actual fighting followed a few weeks later in the Donbas. Instead of ordering a massive cross-border invasion of eastern Ukraine, which Moscow had implicitly threatened and Kiev feared, the Putin government resorted to a tactic known in the West as “hybrid warfare”: providing logistical and intelligence support for the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas while undertaking military exercises near the Ukrainian border to keep Kiev off balance. Moscow did send active-duty Russian officers to eastern Ukraine, some of whom were ostensibly on leave. But the bulk of the Russian-provided manpower in the country was made up of volunteers, and regular Russian units operated there only intermittently.

The story of Russia’s military modernization begins with its 2008 war in Georgia.

At the same time, Russia put NATO countries on notice: stay out of the conflict, or it may affect you, too. Russian warplanes—which in 2007 had resumed Cold War–era patrols around the world—skirted the borders of the United Kingdom, the United States, and several Scandinavian countries and got close to Western planes over the Baltic and Black Seas. Putin later admitted on Russian television that he had even considered putting Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert to defend its interests in Ukraine.

Russia benefited from its Ukraine campaign in several ways. The gambit allowed Moscow to incorporate Crimea, and it kept Kiev fearful of a full-scale invasion, which made the new Ukrainian leadership abandon the idea of using all of the country’s available forces to suppress the separatist rebellion in the Donbas. It also directly challenged U.S. dominance in the region, terrifying some of Russia’s neighbors, especially the Baltic states, which feared that Moscow might pull off similar operations in support of their own minority Russian populations. By provoking even deeper hostility toward Russia not only among Ukraine’s elites but also among its broader population, however, Russia’s military actions in Ukraine have also had a major downside.

Moscow’s use of force to change borders and annex territory did not so much mark the reappearance of realpolitik in Europe—the Balkans and the Caucasus saw that strategic logic in spades in the 1990s and the early years of this century—as indicate Russia’s willingness and capacity to compete militarily with NATO. The year 2014 was when European security again became bipolar.


For all its novelties, the Russian offensive in Ukraine did not end Moscow’s tendency to project force only within the borders of the former Soviet Union. Russia broke that trend last year, when it dove into Syria’s civil war. It dispatched several dozen aircraft to Syria to strike the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and other anti-Assad forces, established advanced air defense systems within Syria, sent strategic bombers on sorties over the country from bases in central Russia, and ordered the Russian navy to fire missiles at Syrian targets from positions in the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas. By doing so, Russia undermined the de facto monopoly on the global use of force that the United States has held since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

MAXIM SHEMETOV / REUTERS Russian military vehicles before a rehearsal for a Victory Day parade in central Moscow, April 2015.

Moscow’s immediate military objective in Syria has been to prevent the defeat of Assad’s army and a subsequent takeover of Damascus by ISIS, a goal it has sought to achieve primarily through the empowerment of Syrian government forces and their Hezbollah and Iranian allies. Its political objective, meanwhile, has been to engineer a peace settlement that protects Russian interests in the country and the wider region—above all, by ensuring that Syria’s postwar, post-Assad government remains friendly to Russia; that Moscow is able to retain a military presence in Syria; and that Russia’s wartime partnerships with Iran, Iraq, and Kurdish forces produce lasting political and economic ties.

Even more important, Putin seeks to confirm Russia’s status as a great power, in part by working alongside the United States as a main cosponsor of a diplomatic process to end the war and as a guarantor of the ensuing settlement. Putin’s historic mission, as he sees it, is to keep Russia in one piece and return it to its rightful place among the world’s powers; Russia’s intervention in Syria has demonstrated the importance of military force in reaching that goal. By acting boldly despite its limited resources, Russia has helped shift the strategic balance in Syria and staged a spectacular comeback in a region where its relevance was written off 25 years ago.

The operation in Syria has had its dis­advantages for Moscow. In November 2015, a Turkish fighter jet downed a Russian bomber near the Syrian-Turkish border, the first such incident between Russia and a NATO country in more than half a century. Russia refrained from military retaliation, but its relations with Turkey, a major economic partner, suffered a crushing blow when Moscow imposed sanctions that could cost the Turkish economy billions of dollars. By siding with the Shiite regimes in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, Russia could also alienate its own population of some 16 million Muslims, most of whom are Sunni. Faced with this risk, Moscow has attempted to improve ties with some of the Middle East’s Sunni players, such as Egypt; it has also wagered that keeping Assad’s military afloat will ensure that the thousands of Russian and Central Asian jihadists fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria will never return to stir up trouble at home. Thus, Moscow’s war in support of Assad and against ISIS has also been an effort to kill individuals who might threaten Russia’s own stability.


Where will the Russian military go next? Moscow is looking to the Arctic, where the hastening retreat of sea ice is exposing rich energy deposits and making commercial navigation more viable. The Arctic littoral countries, all of which are NATO members except for Russia, are competing for access to resources there; Russia, for its part, hopes to extend its exclusive economic zone in the Arctic Ocean so that it can lay claim to valuable mineral deposits and protect the Northern Sea Route, a passage for maritime traffic between Europe and Asia that winds along the Siberian coast. To bolster its position in the High North, Russia is reactivating some of the military bases there that were abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is also building six new military installations in the region. Tensions in the Arctic remain mild, but that could change if there is a major standoff between NATO and Russia elsewhere or if Finland and Sweden, the two historically neutral Nordic countries, apply for NATO membership.

    In the coming years, Russia’s military will continue to focus on the country’s vast neighborhood in greater Eurasia.

More likely, Russia will take military action near its southern border, particularly if ISIS, which has established a foothold in Afghanistan, manages to expand into the Central Asian states, all of which are relatively fragile. The countries with the region’s largest economies, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, will soon face leadership transitions as their septuagenarian presidents step down or die. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where Russia keeps small army and air force garrisons, will not prove stable in the long term; like Turkmenistan, they are home to high unemployment, official corruption, ethnic tension, and religious radicalism—the same sort of problems that triggered the Arab Spring.

The memory of the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan is still too fresh for the Kremlin to seriously contemplate invading the country again to put down ISIS there; instead, it will continue to support the Afghan government and the Taliban’s efforts to take on the group. But that is not the case in Central Asia, which Russia considers a vital security buffer. If the government of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or Tajikistan faces a major challenge from Islamist extremists, Russia will likely intervene politically and militarily, perhaps under the mandate of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance to which all four states belong.

In the coming years, then, Russia’s military will continue to focus on the country’s vast neighborhood in greater Eurasia, where Moscow believes using force constitutes strategic defense. If Russia’s venture in Syria fails to achieve Moscow’s political objectives there, or if Russia’s economy significantly deteriorates, that instance of intervention beyond the country’s near abroad may prove to be an exception. If not, Russia might learn to efficiently use its military force around the world, backing up its claim to be one of the world’s great powers, alongside China and the United States.


Even as Moscow has reformed its military to deal with new threats, Russian defense planning has remained consistently focused on the United States and NATO, which the Kremlin still considers its primary challenges. Russia’s National Security Strategy for 2016 describes U.S. policy toward Russia as containment; it also makes clear that Russia considers the buildup of NATO’s military capabilities a threat, as it does the development of U.S. ballistic missile defenses and the Pentagon’s ongoing project to gain the ability to strike anywhere on earth with conventional weapons within an hour. To counter these moves, Russia is modernizing its nuclear arsenal and its own air and missile defenses. Moscow is also revising the deployment pattern of its forces, particularly along Russia’s western border, and it will likely deepen its military footprint in the Baltic exclave of Kali­ningrad. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are safe, however, even if they do not feel that way: the Kremlin has no interest in risking nuclear war by attacking a NATO member state, and the sphere of Russian control to which Putin aspires certainly excludes these countries.
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At the same time that Russia is rebuilding its military, NATO is ramping up its own military presence in eastern Europe. The result will likely be a new and open-ended military standoff. Unlike during the Cold War, however, there is little prospect for arms control agreements between Russia and the West anytime soon because of the many disparities in their conventional military capabilities. Indeed, the Russian armed forces are unlikely to become as powerful as the U.S. military or threaten a NATO member state with a massive invasion even in the long term. Although Moscow seeks to remain a major player on the international stage, Russian leaders have abandoned Soviet-era ambitions of global domination and retain bad memories of the Cold War–era arms race, which fatally weakened the Soviet Union.

What is more, Russia’s resources are far more limited than those of the United States: its struggling economy is nowhere near the size of the U.S. economy, and its aging population is less than half as large as the U.S. population. The Russian defense industry, having barely survived two decades of neglect and decay, faces a shrinking work force, weaknesses in key areas such as electronics, and the loss of traditional suppliers such as Ukraine. Although Russia’s military expenditures equaled 4.2 percent of GDP in 2015, the country cannot bear such high costs much longer without cutting back on essential domestic needs, particularly in the absence of robust economic growth. For now, even under the constraints of low energy prices and Western sanctions, Russian officials have pledged to continue the military modernization, albeit at a slightly slower pace than was originally planned.

Putin and other Russian officials understand that Russia’s future, and their own, depends mostly on how ordinary citizens feel. Just as the annexation of Crimea was an exercise in historic justice for most of the Russian public, high defense spending will be popular so long as Russian citizens believe that it is warranted by their country’s international position. So far, that seems to be the case. The modernization program could become a problem, however, if it demands major cuts to social spending and produces a sharp drop in living standards. The Russian people are famously resilient, but unless the Kremlin finds a way to rebuild the economy and provide better governance in the next four or five years, the social contract at the foundation of the country’s political system could unravel. Public sentiment is not a trivial matter in this respect: Russia is an au­tocracy, but it is an autocracy with the consent of the governed.
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« Reply #81 on: December 25, 2016, 03:53:59 PM »

From Red to Silver: The 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Soviet Union
December 25, 2016 | 14:01 GMT Print
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A crowd watches as a statue of KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky is lowered in Moscow's Lubyanka Square on Aug. 22, 1991. (ANATOLY SAPRONENKOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin once remarked that anyone who "does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart," while anyone who "wants it back has no brain." For nearly 70 years, the Soviet Union's founding communist ideology held the disparate peoples of its constituent socialist republics together. This ideology, antithetical as it was to the tenets of U.S. capitalism, also set the stage for the decadeslong war of worldviews that the United States and Soviet Union waged against each other through the latter half of the 20th century. The Cold War was a conflict unlike any other in history, an indirect battle between two superpowers in which the rest of the world was caught and maneuvered in for nearly half a century. On Dec. 26, 1991, the United States claimed its victory at last when the Kremlin lowered the iconic red flag that had flown over the Soviet Union. Twenty-five years later, the anniversary of the Soviet Union's collapse invites a reflection on the Cold War, its history and its legacy.

Laying the Foundation

No sooner had World War II ended than the preparations for the Cold War began. Before the ink had even dried on the various peace treaties that concluded the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States were already shoring up their positions, and their opposition, in Europe. As the Soviets, battered and nearly broken by the war, consolidated control over the so-called Eastern Bloc states, U.S. President Harry Truman said the United States and its allies needed to "show [them] how to behave." Just 25 years into its existence at the time, the Soviet Union was, after all, a young country. What Truman failed to understand, however, was that Moscow was following a strategy that had served it well for centuries under the Russian Empire, seeking security through expansionism. The United States and Western European nations quickly caught on to the Soviet agenda and formed their containment strategy, which evolved in time from the 1947 Truman Doctrine into the NATO military alliance. Even before the United States and Soviet Union formally drew their line between East and West in Europe, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill pronounced that an "iron curtain ha[d] descended across the Continent."

The two nations spent the ensuing decades embroiled in war. But they managed it without ever fighting each other directly. Instead, the conflict played out in proxy battles across nearly every continent; through trade wars; in the perpetual worries of leaders and citizens in each country over the looming threat of nuclear war; and, of course, in an ideological war.

The Soviet Union's Collapse, 25 Years Later

The Soviet system was built on the socialist concept of equality — legal, social and economic — for all people (beginning with workers), a strategic move by the Union's founders more than a reflection of their convictions. The Communist Party presided over this system, directly overseeing the Soviet Union's political apparatuses, economies, industries, press and societies. In its principles and functions, the Soviet model stood in direct opposition to that of the United States, which espoused self-determination, democracy and capitalism. Neither belief system was as ironclad as its champions in Washington and Moscow perhaps imagined, and some ideals inevitably fell by the wayside, unrealized. War, moreover, makes for strange bedfellows; in the course of their conflict, the United States and Russia each supported states that held diverging — if not contradictory — views. Still, the United States saw the Soviets as godless oppressors of freedom and hope, depriving their citizenry of the right to pursue a better life. The Soviet Union, in turn, considered the United States an imperialist superpower trying to become a global hegemon. The Cold War struggle became a moral contest to determine which worldview was correct.

The Beginning of the End

Toward the end of the 1970s, after proxy conflicts and threats of nuclear war by the dozen, it seemed to Washington that Moscow would prevail. In its estimation of the apparently unstoppable Soviet Union, though, the United States failed to appreciate just how unwieldy an entity it was. Whether governing the Russian Empire or today's Russian Federation, Moscow has faced the same geographic constraints and vulnerabilities throughout its long history. With an economy dependent on oil (and, at times, grain), a highly diverse population and competitors beyond its indefensible borders, each variation of Russia behaves at its strongest and weakest much as its predecessor did. The question, then, was never whether the Soviet Union would fall to the West but rather when it would inevitably collapse under its own weight.

The Soviet Union had already shown signs of faltering. When Nikita Khrushchev assumed the Soviet premiership a few years after longtime leader Josef Stalin's death, he proclaimed a "thaw" throughout the Soviet Union. Khrushchev proceeded to relax censorship somewhat, liberalize political and economic policies, and release political prisoners, all the while decrying Stalin's often brutal tactics. (Even the nearly ubiquitous likenesses of the late leader were destroyed or cached away during Khrushchev's de-Stalinization campaign.) He and the rest of the Party elite knew the Soviet Union would fall apart if it did not evolve. In the decades that followed Khrushchev's shake-up, the country moldered in a cycle of alternating consolidation and liberalization schemes under a string of leaders.

Not With a Bang, but a Whimper

By the 1980s, a perfect storm of political pressures had converged on the Soviet Union. The Soviet political system was atrophying. Three elderly leaders — Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko — died in office in a span of three years as the country fought a bloody and expensive war in Afghanistan. Independent labor unions were sprouting up and gaining political traction across the Eastern Bloc. Meanwhile, oil prices — which made up more than half the country's revenues — plummeted, plunging the mostly hollow Soviet economy into ruin. The Soviet Union was starting to give under the weight of its own problems, a process the United States helped speed along. Washington set off an arms race in the early 1980s with its decision to take an active military position against the Soviets. Between 1980 and 1989, the United States nearly doubled its defense spending, armed mujahideen forces against the Soviets in Afghanistan and flaunted its advanced military capabilities by launching the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars." The Soviets' efforts to keep up only exacerbated the pressures on their country.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, addresses on June 12, 1987 the people of West Berlin at the base of the Brandenburg Gate, near the Berlin wall. (MIKE SARGENT/AFP/Getty Images)

Mikhail Gorbachev tried to stave off the Soviet Union's demise when he came to power in 1985 by bringing a younger generation of leaders to the Kremlin and introducing a series of liberal political and economic reforms. Gorbachev permitted the countries of the Eastern Bloc to establish independent political systems and struck an arms control agreement with the United States. But the measures were not enough to save the Soviet Union; the seeds of dissolution had already been sown. Just a few days shy of its 69th anniversary, the Soviet Union dissolved, ending the Cold War without so much as a bang. Instead, the Kremlin quietly lowered the Soviet flag — the symbol of one of history's most formidable forces. 

In the Wake of the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union's collapse was hailed in the West as a victory for the United States and its allies, proof that the American system and its governing ideology were morally, ethically and technically superior. Perhaps the clearest illustration of Western views toward the end of the Cold War was the Berlin Freedom Concert, which commemorated the opening of the border between East and West Germany in 1989. Televised in more than 20 countries around the world, the concert brought orchestral musicians from both sides of the Berlin Wall together to play Beethoven's 9th Symphony. But instead of "ode to joy," the choir sang "ode to freedom." As the West saw it, the end of the German Democratic Republic represented a triumph for freedom, and the demise of the Soviet Union liberated the world from the so-called Evil Empire.

Without an equal adversary, the United States became a global hegemon, just as the Soviets had feared, and the Western institutional, economic and democratic models spread across many parts of the world. But the fall of the Soviet Union yielded some more unexpected outcomes as well. Despite the proxy wars that had raged throughout the Cold War, the U.S.-Soviet dichotomy kept other conflicts in check. In the waning years of the Soviet Union and for decades after its collapse, wars broke out across the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and the former Soviet states. Many of these conflicts tested the United States' hegemony. Furthermore, the end of the Cold War facilitated the rise of regional powers such as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Germany and France — some of which diverge from the United States' worldview. Alternative regional coalitions formed or expanded in the wake of the binary alliance system that the Cold War had built, creating competition for the United States.

Though the Soviet Union's dissolution seemed to suggest that Moscow could never again challenge Washington, Russia eventually regained its footing. Now, the Russian Federation is following the same strategy, however flawed, that its Soviet and imperial forerunners pursued. Much as it did in previous eras, Moscow is once again resorting to authoritarian and expansionist tactics to overcome its inherent fragility — this time under the guise of a democratic system and a market-driven (albeit state-influenced) economy. This resurgence has in some ways echoed the rise of the Soviet Union, but having learned from its mistakes, Moscow will not attempt to match the Soviets' global reach. Nonetheless, Russia's comeback has proved that 25 years after the Cold War's end, a stable world order is as elusive as ever.
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« Reply #82 on: January 04, 2017, 09:47:33 AM »
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« Reply #83 on: February 23, 2017, 08:34:54 AM »
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« Reply #84 on: July 03, 2017, 10:42:54 PM »

Trump-Putin Will Talk Against Backdrop of Broader Russian Mischief
Debate over Russia’s role in 2016 election blurs larger picture
Four Things to Watch for During Trump-Putin Meeting

The biggest event on the international stage this week will be the meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. WSJ's Gerald F. Seib sees four things to watch out for: their personal interactions, sanctions, Syria and Ukraine. Photo: AP
By Gerald F. Seib
July 3, 2017 10:59 a.m. ET

When President Donald Trump meets Russian leader Vladimir Putin late this week, many will be watching to see whether they discuss alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

That much is obvious. Less obvious, but more important, is how any Russian meddling in the American presidential-election season—whatever form it may have taken—fits into a much larger tale. This is the tale of a systematic Russian effort to disrupt democratic and capitalist systems internationally, using an updated version of tactics Mr. Putin learned in the bad old days of the Soviet KGB.

In fact, one of the dangers in the current hyperpartisan American debate over Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election is that it is blurring this larger picture. If the 2016 election was the tip of an iceberg, the rest of the iceberg warrants serious attention.

A useful reminder of the breadth of the problem comes in the form of “The Kremlin Playbook,” a publication released last October by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist American think tank, and the Center for the Study of Democracy, a European public-policy institute. In retrospect, it was a remarkably prescient look at the controversies that have mushroomed since the American election that came a month later.

The Playbook is an in-depth study of Russian efforts to use overt and covert tactics over a period of a decade to expand its economic and political influence in five Central and East European nations. A group of regional leaders from such nations warned President Barack Obama in a 2009 letter—which also looks prescient now—that Russia was conducting “overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests….”

The Russian strategy, the study finds, isn’t ad hoc. Rather, it is the implementation of a doctrine developed by Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov called “new generation warfare.” One European analyst called that “primarily a strategy of influence, not of brute force” aimed at “breaking the internal coherence of the enemy system.”

The strategy, as it has unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe, proceeds along two parallel tracks, the study found. The first track is economic. Russia seeks to find business partners and investments that allow it to establish an economic foothold, which in turn produces economically influential patrons and partners who have a vested interest in policies friendly to the Kremlin. That is a particularly fruitful endeavor in Europe, where many nations depend on Russian energy supplies.

The goal on this track is to cultivate “a network of local affiliates and power-brokers who are capable of advocating on Russia’s behalf.”

The second track, perhaps more relevant to the U.S., is designed to disrupt prevailing democratic political patterns. The goal, the Playbook says, is “to corrode democracy from within by deepening political divides and cultivating relationships with aspiring autocrats, political parties (notably nationalists, populists and Euroskeptic groups), and Russian sympathizers.”
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On this track, the effort is designed in part to advance parties and figures sympathetic to Russia. But the broader goal is simply to disrupt the process, create confusion and discord, and discredit democratic systems both in targeted countries and in the eyes of Russian citizens, who are told the chaos to their West shows they shouldn’t long for a Western-styled democratic system at home.

A key tool in this effort, the report says, is a “war on information” campaign that uses disinformation and propaganda to disable opponents and foment nationalist and anti-Western sentiment. “Toward this end, Russia exploits existing political pressure points such as migration and economic stagnation, blames Western and U.S. operations for all negative international dynamics (such as the attempted July 2016 coup in Turkey), and discredits the current state of Western democracy,” the report says.

Remember that this was written before Mr. Trump won the American presidency and the investigations into Russian influence went into high gear. The findings are about a broader pattern of Russian behavior, not about what it might have done in the U.S. political system.

Yet these findings present a backdrop for both the current debate over Russia’s 2016 U.S. activities, as well as Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Germany this week.

Heather A. Conley, a senior vice president of CSIS and one of the authors of The Kremlin Playbook, says the months since its publication have brought “an acceleration” of Russian influence-seeking, ranging from a plot against the prime minister of Montenegro to interference in the French election to cyberattacks in Ukraine.

The goal, she says, “is disruption, to create governmental policies that accommodate Russian interests,” first in ending Western economic sanctions and then in building a broader sphere of influence. She adds:  “We continue to be unprepared.”
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« Reply #85 on: October 11, 2017, 01:52:47 PM »

What Russia’s Middle East Strategy Is Really About
Oct 11, 2017
By Xander Snyder

A new balance of power is solidifying in Syria. Iran, Turkey and Russia have all played a role in the conflict there – jockeying for position and even agreeing in September to set up zones of control. But Russia in particular has deftly managed the game up to this point, and it is emerging from the Syrian civil war with a strong hand. Ultimately, Russia’s goal is to parlay its position in the Middle East into advantages in areas that matter more to Moscow. To some degree, it has achieved this, but it’s still unclear whether its strategy will be successful enough to score Russia an advantage in the area it cares about the most: Ukraine.

Russia intervened in Syria for two reasons: to gain enough clout in the region that the U.S. would offer some concessions in negotiations elsewhere in exchange for cooperation in Syria, and to show its public that Russia is still a strong power. Russia’s support for Bashar Assad was instrumental in preventing the regime’s demise. Now, the Islamic State is in retreat, and some version of the Syrian regime, led by Assad, will remain in power. Russia’s role in this outcome gives the Kremlin influence with the Assad regime. The regime’s biggest challenge now is eliminating what remains of the Sunni insurgency, including groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which took control of much of Idlib province from the Turkish proxy Ahrar al-Sham in July.
Turkish soldiers stand during a demonstration in support of the Turkish army’s Idlib operation near the Turkey-Syria border on Oct. 10, 2017. ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past week, we’ve seen two seemingly anomalous events that are part of a strategy to eliminate the Sunni insurgency. First, King Salman of Saudi Arabia visited Moscow and signed multibillion-dollar energy deals with Russia that will involve both Russian investment in Saudi Arabia and Saudi investment in Russia. Then, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – a group that the Saudis have been accused of backing and that, as of a few months ago, was an enemy of one of Turkey’s proxy groups – reportedly escorted Turkish officers into Idlib as Turkish reconnaissance forces surveyed the territory in preparation for a greater deployment of forces. Both these events indicate that the Saudis may be willing to work with Russia in Syria by applying pressure on radical Sunni insurgent groups. In exchange, the Saudis will get some much-needed financial help in the form of investment deals. They will also get reassurance that Iranian influence in Syria will be limited. Turkey’s deployment in Idlib is one way of achieving this.

Russia needed to isolate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib so that Turkey could establish control of the territory as part of the de-escalation agreement that Russia, Turkey and Iran reached in September. Idlib, which is close to the Turkish border as well as Aleppo and Latakia – two key provinces for the Syrian government – is not the only territory still held by rebels, but it is the last major rebel bastion. Russia is hoping that investment deals like the one it made last week will compel the Saudis to put more pressure on the group. The Saudi regime hasn’t directly funded Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, but it has looked the other way as individual Saudis gave it financial support.

Russia is cooperating with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey to gain ground in the region in the short term, even though its interests don’t align with these countries’ interests in the long term. Moscow is, therefore, establishing a balance that lets Russia play one country off the other so that no single power gains too much influence in the region.
Turkey has historically been a potential threat to Russia because Ankara controls the Bosporus, a narrow passage that, if blocked, would obstruct Moscow’s access to the Mediterranean. Iran is less dangerous to Moscow, but Russia still wants to limit Tehran’s influence in the Caucasus and prevent it from gaining too much control in Syria. Russia will thus work with both countries to make sure that they can counterbalance each other. An additional benefit of working with Turkey is that it can help isolate the remaining radical Sunni groups and prevent any interference from Saudi Arabia.

Russia’s strategy in the Middle East is to stay closer to all other players in the region than they are to one another. Russia, however, is pursuing this strategy not because it wants to be a major leader in the Middle East, but because it wants to accumulate as much influence as possible. This would allow it to offer to cooperate with the U.S. in the Middle East in exchange for concessions elsewhere. If the U.S. declines this offer, Russia will have at least made the situation more difficult for the U.S. and kept it bogged down and distracted. Russia’s main priority is Ukraine, and it perceives U.S. involvement there over the past several years as a threat. Moscow hopes that, as long as the U.S. is focused on the Middle East, it will be more willing to budge on the Ukraine issue.

Signs that a short-term alignment is emerging between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia plays into Russia’s strategy. All three of these countries have an interest in cooperating to a degree in Syria. Turkey needs to expand into Syria to eliminate radical Sunni insurgent threats on its border, to check Iran’s power in Syria and to keep the Syrian Kurds weak in the north. Iran wants to further limit the threat of Sunni groups in Syria and consolidate its power in Syria and Iraq. And Saudi Arabia has a financial incentive to cooperate, as it needs all the money it can get. For Russia, however, its main focus is not in the Middle East but in Ukraine. It has so far seen success in one part of its Middle East strategy – gaining influence in an area the U.S. cares deeply about – but it remains to be seen whether this will translate into concessions on Ukraine.
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« Reply #86 on: November 01, 2017, 06:50:50 PM »


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Forecast Update

In Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, we said Russia and Iran would work in tandem through the Syrian peace talks and in negotiations with other regional players. We are currently seeing that cooperation occur not only in Syria, but other areas as well.

The relationship between Russia and Iran is reigniting. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Iran on Nov. 1 to meet with his Azerbaijani and Iranian counterparts in the second summit between the three countries. The trilateral format was set up last year by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to discuss shared concerns and projects in the region. But increasing alignment between Russia and Iran over the last year will give the two countries plenty to discuss.

Moscow and Tehran found themselves aligned in the mid 2000s as the United States and Western powers were increasing pressure on Iran for its nuclear program and on Russia through the Western containment strategy. Russia spearheaded construction on Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor and supplied it with fuel, enabling Moscow to use the so-called "Iran card" in negotiations with Washington over issues such as NATO expansion, missile defense, and support for Russia's political opposition. Tehran reveled in the rivalry between Russia and the United States, not only because it helped Iran's nuclear program, but also because Moscow regularly interfered with the broader coalition against Iran. The usefulness of their relations, however, dwindled after Iran, Russia, the United States and other countries finalized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iranian nuclear deal.

Yet Tehran and Moscow have rekindled their alignment in recent years. Increased pressure on Russia from Western sanctions in 2014 and the looming threat of expanded sanctions against Iran from U.S. President Donald Trump's administration have given both countries cause to deepen their relationship. Russia's entrance into the Syrian conflict in 2015 also helped solidify their alignment. Recent developments in Syria favor loyalist forces backed by Iran and Russia, helping both countries preserve their influence in the region. Moscow and Tehran have ensured that negotiations with outside parties — including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon — over the next phase of the Syrian conflict largely exclude the United States.

Meanwhile, Russian companies are actively looking for opportunities to invest in Iran's energy sector. Lukoil, Rosneft and Gazprom Neft — along with several other Russian energy companies — are in talks to invest an estimated $1.5 billion in the country through oil and natural gas projects. Iran and Russia are also still finalizing their oil-for-goods barter scheme to allow Iranian crude oil to be traded for Russian equipment and goods. The deal was pared down from 500,000 to 100,000 barrels per day, but both countries may be open to increasing that number to counter looming U.S. sanctions.

Russia and Iran have flirted with greater cooperation on defense as well. Russia transferred its S-300 air defense missile system to Iran last year, and is negotiating the sale of $10 billion worth of weapons, including T-90 tanks and Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jets. The United Nations holds a memorandum on Iranian weapons acquisitions — slated to be lifted in 2020 with any weapons transfers requiring U.N. approval — and the United States has vowed to stop any weapons transfers from Russia to Iran. The demand gives Moscow another point it can use in talks with Washington, and another reason to maintain its partnership with Iran despite U.S. pressure.

Both Russia and Iran seem to have been lumped in with North Korea as primary foes in the eyes of the Trump administration. The current U.S. foreign policy posture gives Moscow and Tehran cause to cooperate not only so they can advance their objectives, but also so they can counter Washington's.
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« Reply #87 on: November 24, 2017, 08:33:51 PM »

Nov. 16, 2017 Iran has been quiet about Moscow and Riyadh’s newfound friendship – and the weapons that friendship has procured.

By Jacob L. Shapiro

Last month, well before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman purged the government of potential rivals, his father, King Salman, did something unprecedented as well: He visited Russia, Saudi Arabia’s erstwhile enemy. After the visit came the usual slew of announced business deals that promise a lot but deliver little. On Nov. 13, however, Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation announced that it would provide Saudi Arabia with its sophisticated S-400 air defense missiles. King Salman’s visit appears to have delivered real cooperation.

A Relationship Redefined

That Saudi Arabia and Russia would redefine the nature of their relationship is surprising in its own right. These were two countries firmly on opposite ends of the Cold War. But even more jarring is that Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, has been silent. Iran and Russia have a complicated relationship in their own right, one marked for centuries by suspicion and distrust. But in recent years they had set aside their differences, becoming military allies to save Bashar Assad and destroy the Islamic State. Now, Russia is promising to supply Iran’s biggest enemy with air defense missiles – and Iran hasn’t made a peep. Something doesn’t add up.

Consider Russia’s position in the Middle East. Most observers claim that by partnering with Iran to save the Assad regime, Russia enhanced its influence in the region at the expense of the United States. This is a misunderstanding. Russia’s intervention was actually pretty limited. At the height of its involvement, it had only 30-75 fighter jets and helicopters operating in the country. Its commitment was small but successful, insofar as it prevented the Syrian government from falling and the Islamic State from rising.

But it did not undermine U.S. strategic goals in the Middle East. If anything, it enhanced them. When the Syrian civil war started, the U.S. was determined to remove Assad. Yet there weren’t enough moderates for it to train and arm, and in any case, the Islamic State looked as though it may take Damascus for itself. And so the United States prioritized its fight against IS over its fight against Assad. Russia was, in effect, helping the U.S. do its dirty work. For all the bluster surrounding their relations, the U.S. and Russia have been coordinating their efforts in Syria in pursuit of a common goal for years.
Russian S-400 Triumph medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile systems ride through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2017. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

Now that Assad has been saved and the Islamic State’s caliphate vanquished, the question is: What comes next? With IS out of the picture, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia, Turkey and Iran – which had if nothing else a common enemy – no longer have a reason to cooperate with one another. Life after IS is actually more difficult for Russia than life with it. Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are all competing to fill the power vacuum left by the group’s departure, and Russia’s long-term interests don’t align with any of theirs.

Unlike the Islamic State, all three countries have the power to threaten Russian interests directly. Take Turkey, for example. It can cut off Russia’s access to the Mediterranean by closing the Bosporus. It competes with Russia in the Caucasus. And as it strengthens, it will begin to project power into the Balkans, another region in Russia’s sphere of influence.

Iran, like Turkey, has interests in the Caucasus. It also shares a border with Central Asia and Afghanistan – another Russian sphere of influence where Iran can cause serious problems for Moscow.

And Saudi Arabia, for its part, poses two challenges of its own. First, Saudi Arabia can still influence global oil prices, where even small fluctuations can hurt the Russian economy. Second, Saudi Arabia is the worldwide leader in exporting jihadism, a threat to a country like Russia, which has a large minority Muslim population that is fast increasing.

Russia has met these challenges not by choosing one country to align with but by trying to forge better relationships with all of them. Its relationship with Turkey is rocky but sustainable. (In fact, in September, Turkey signed its own agreement to receive S-400s from Russia.) Its relationship with Iran is solid but not without drama. A Russian announcement in August 2016 that it was using an Iranian air base for attacks in Syria set off a short-lived political controversy in Iran, sparking backlash from Iranian politicians who felt Russia’s use of the base violated Iran’s Constitution. Now Russia is reaching out to Saudi Arabia, and besides the agreements on military cooperation, Moscow secured a promise from King Salman during his visit last month to stop Saudi proselytizing to Muslims in Russia.

Russia is cultivating other ties too. Officials from Moscow have met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu several times this year and have kept lines of communication open over Hezbollah’s potential acquisition of advanced weaponry. Russia has also expressed some support for various Kurdish groups vying for independence in the region. Moscow has, for example, kept open its embassy in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, throughout the contentious independence referendum.

And while Russia has said it does not support the PYD, the Kurdish political party in northern Syria, in its push for independence, it nonetheless invited the group to a congress comprising all relevant parties to discuss Syria’s future – much to the chagrin of Turkey, Iran and anti-Assad Syrian opposition groups.

Silence and Blindness

Russian foreign policy can be disruptive, but it would be a mistake to think of it as monolithic or unchanging. The Cold War, for all its faults, simplified foreign policy. (Simple doesn’t mean easy.) It was unclear whether the U.S. or USSR was more powerful. Regions like the Middle East became battlegrounds to see which one was. The U.S. had its allies (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey) and the USSR had its allies (Egypt, Syria, Iraq). Sometimes countries switched sides, but ultimately it was a zero-sum game, with each side trying to weaken the other.

But the Cold War has been over for more than two decades. Today’s Russia is not yesterday’s Soviet Union. The U.S. and Russia actually share some long-term interests in the Middle East. Neither wants to see any one country dominate the entire region. Washington and Moscow want parity; they prefer that the region’s countries compete with one another rather than cause problems for them. In a perfect world, the U.S. would be embroiled in the Middle East and Russia would be free. But theirs is not a perfect world, so Moscow’s primary objective is to make sure the problems and ambitions of the Middle East stay in the Middle East.

This altogether different strategy of containment brings us back to Iran – and its silence on the budding Saudi-Russia friendship. Iran does not think it needs to attack Saudi Arabia head on. The government in Tehran believes Saudi Arabia will eventually collapse under the weight of its own problems, and that, in the meantime, the best thing Iran can do is engage Saudi Arabia in expensive and time-consuming proxy wars. Iran may not particularly like Russia’s providing Saudi Arabia with S-400s, but it can look past this particular issue because none of its red lines have been crossed. Russia is, after all, still playing an important role in helping the Assad regime – a key Iranian ally – retake the parts of Syria it has lost in the war. That is worth more right now than a public denunciation of some missile acquisitions.

But just because Iran is silent doesn’t mean it is blind to what’s happening. And just because Iran and Russia have cooperated in recent years doesn’t mean their relationship is ironclad. Russia cannot be everything to everyone in the region, and at some point it will be forced to make difficult decisions. In the meantime, pragmatism reigns. By improving relations with Saudi Arabia, Russia is hedging the bets it placed on Iran. By keeping quiet, Iran continues to reap what benefits it can from Russia’s moves. News about the S-400s doesn’t change much, but it underscores just how quickly change can come
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